[Diego Rivera: Baile Tehuantepec (1928)]
Bishop and ‘Helena Morley’
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
[J. L. Castel, 1954]
(a) The Nature of the Artefact
Diamantina, Brazil, March 14th 1893:
The mysterious burglar is the talk of the town; at grandma's chácara they don't speak about anything else. They say that he disappeared but now he's come back again and that he's robbed lots of houses and stores and nobody has been able to catch him. When they try to take hold of him he can turn into anything he wants to. Today Emídio and José Pedro arrived at the chácara terrified. talking about the thief's exploits. He broke into a store in Rio Grande Street and stole a lot. The owner arrived while he was filling his bag and whistled. The people of Rio Grande Street, who had already been warned, rushed into the street to help catch the thief. He ran away with the people after him. When he got near the church of the Glória, and they'd almost caught him, he turned into an ant-hill. Emídio and José Pedro told us about it, scared to death.
I'm doubtful about this story, because if they saw the man turn into an ant-hill they could have taken the ant-hill and locked it up in jail and it would have to turn back into a man again. I don't believe this story about a man turning into an ant-hill or a tree-trunk or anything else. But just the same he frightens us terribly. Every day there are reports that he has broken into a house or a store. We'll all sleep easier when this mysterious thief is caught. (Brant, 1981, pp.17-18)
In the progress of our argument so far, we have defined the methodology of such an 'influence study' in terms of chronology and genre. We then went on to examine some fictions of South America by highlighting their respective views of the function of the continent in diverse contexts. It now remains to look at the genesis of the contemporary relationship between the 'South America' which exists in Latin American and Western literatures. In order to do this, I have chosen to concentrate on the concept of 'translation' between the two cultures as exemplified by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop – both her own relationship with Brazil, and an actual translation completed by her there.
The passage above, from Bishop's translation of The Diary of 'Helena Morley' (1957), accordingly presents us with a number of difficulties of interpretation. In the first place, who is speaking – and to what audience? The simple answer, that the speaker is Helena Morley, filtered through the English translation of Elizabeth Bishop, is complicated by the fact that 'Helena Morley' is the pseudonym of Dona Alice Brant, and the 'Diary' in question is a series of short essays written because:
When I was a child my father encouraged me to form the habit of writing down everything that happened to me. Almost every day at school the Portuguese teacher expected us to write a composition, which could be a description, a letter, or an account of what we had been doing. I found it was easiest to write about myself and my very numerous family. (Brant, 1981, p.xxxv)
Bishop, in her introduction to the book, specifies further that it was Dona Alice's husband, Dr. Augusto Mario Caldeira Brant, 'who had undertaken to put together all the old scraps and notebooks and prepare them for publication' (Brant, 1981, p.x).
We are thus already at a number of removes from a truly 'authorial' utterance. First, in an even more direct way than most diaries (generally allowed to be semi-public documents – for the eyes of at least one other person), this series of 'notebooks and loose sheets' (Brant, 1981, p.xxxv) was composed to satisfy the exigencies of Dona Alice's school-teachers – at least partly as a technical exercise, to obtain credit in their eyes and those of her father. As Bishop puts it: 'Occasionally she has "runs" on one subject; perhaps "papa" had admired a particular page and so she wrote a sequel to it or remembered a similar story' (Brant, 1981, p.xxvi).
More to the point. however, we must consider the influence of her husband, Dr. Brant. on the finished product. For a start (and apparently trivially) there is his insertion of the pseudonym 'Helena' into the text in place of the author's actual name. More significant is his omission of himself from the record. Bishop tells us:
The diaries, I found, had been cut short where they now end by Dr. Brant because the next year marks his own appearance in them, and his acceptance as a suitor. I feel it is a pity he so firmly omits every incident of their courtship. By the time she was seventeen, 'Helena' had already received five proposals of marriage from 'foreign' miners living in Diamantina ... She had indeed become what she admits to yearning to be in her diary: 'the leading girl of Diamantina.' (Brant, 1981, p.xii)
His very 'absence' can thus be seen to be a 'presence'. It is his decision that his wife should be presented as a pre-pubescent girl, innocent and artless, before the onset of adolescent emotional turmoil – and the fact that this also entails leaving out any such picture of himself (a not inconsiderable threat, considering the merciless way in which 'Helena' pillories other men of her acquaintance), might also have influenced his decision.
I do not mean this to sound like a condemnation of the 'unreliable witness' of Dr. Brant. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the presence of any editor who is not also the author of a text (in which case any alterations might be regarded as forming part of the same nexus of intention), must inevitably influence our reading of it. Above all, though, I wish to point out the simultaneous 'presence' both as translator and commentator of Elizabeth Bishop. It is, after all, she who describes Dr. Brant's part in the preparation of the manuscripts for publication (which goes unmentioned in the Portuguese original); and it is she who supplies us with details of Dona Alice's subsequent courtship and marriage. In short, she provides the context for a new interpretation of the book. Not only does she identify the pseudonym 'Helena Morley' as a pseudonym, but she also gives us a portrait of the person whom it conceals. What is more, through the agency of Sir Richard Burton's Explorations of the Highlands of the Brazil (1869), which contains an account of a visit to Diamantina and a meeting with Dona Alice's grandfather, she recounts details of the diamond mines which bear on, but are extraneous to the text itself. Her own visit to the town in the early 1950s is used for more 'local colour', and emphasizes the extent to which her interest in the diary is coloured by the fact that 'it really happened; everything did take place, day by day, minute by minute, once and only once, just the way Helena says it did' (Brant, 1981, p.xxiv). That, for her, is 'the charm and the main point'.
It is therefore, I think, by no means an eccentric claim to say that Minha Vida de Menina (1942), is a different book from the translated Diary of 'Helena Morley', which Bishop originally intended to call Black Beans and Diamonds (Giroux, 1984, p.viii). The Portuguese book is presented simply as the childhood diary of Helena Morley, with a preface by its author, and (on the dust-jacket (Brant, 1981, p.viii)), a recommendation by George Bernanos praising the fact that it owes 'nothing to either experience or talent, but everything to ingenium, to genius' (Brant, 1981, p.xxxvii). The English version, on the other hand, exposes the mask of 'Helena Morley' even on its title-page, and – through Bishop's introduction – explains the choices and omissions in the preparation of the diary as a published book; also supplying details of Helena's immediate landscape not included in her account. To an extent, this merely reflects the different perceived needs of Portuguese and English-speaking readers, but the consequence of these diverse modes of presentation is to highlight further the gap between Latin American and Western views of what is allegedly the same text.
For the moment, however, let us return to the long passage quoted above. Bishop says of Helena's method of composition that it:
seems influenced by the La Fontaine she hates to study;, she winds up her stories with a neat moral that doesn't apply too exactly; sometimes, for variety's sake, she starts off with the moral instead. She has a sense of the right quotation, or detail, the gag-line, and where to stop. The characters are skilfully differentiated: the quiet, humorous father, the devout, doting, slightly foolish mother, the rigid Uncle Conrado. (Brant, 1981, p.xxvi)
The appeal of this book for Bishop, then, is two-fold: on the one hand it is the fact that the incidents in it 'really happened'; on the other, it is the narrative skill displayed by its author in shaping these incidents into anecdotes. The fact that Bishop retells one or two of her favourite stories in the introduction, emphasizing a sub-text which seems to her to be implicit in the writing and yet not entirely present to its author ('I like to think of the two tall, thin little girls hanging onto their mother's arms, the three figures stumbling up the steep streets of the rocky, lightless little town beneath the cold bright moon and stars; and I can hear the surprised young soldier's voice, mama's polite reply, and then three pairs of footsteps scuttling home again over the cObblestones' (Brant, 1981, p.xxviii)), signals a third source of appeal – a synthesis, perhaps, of the other two. It is the simultaneous naivety and knowingness of Helena's writing – the fact that her conjectures (such as the one about not believing that a man can turn into an anthill), are often very sensible, and yet funny because they dramatize her ignorance of many of the salient features of life – which make her book, for Bishop, 'fresh, sad, funny, and eternally true' (Brant, 1981, p.viii). Thus it is possible to admire the dexterity with which the text is composed, while at the same time silently 'correcting' it against a grown-up awareness of certain motivations of which Helena is unaware. It is here that its having 'really happened' becomes significant.
In Bishop's search for works which might be seen as in some way parallel, she mentions that
Certain pages reminded me of more famous and 'literary' ones: Nausicäa doing her laundry on the beach, possibly with the help of her freed slaves; bits from Chaucer, Wordsworth!s 'poetical children and country people, or Dorothy Wordsworth's wandering beggars. (Brant, 1981, p.viii)
These are resemblances of incident, however, rather than of tone. They are too studied, too forced to approach the flavour of the Diary (hence her use of inverted commas around the word 'literary' – not even Dorothy Wordsworth can be absolved from the accusation of writing self-consciously, to achieve a certain effect). Bishop goes on:
Occasionally entries referring to slavery seemed like notes for an unwritten, Brazilian, feminine version of Tom Sawyer and Nigger Jim. But this was a real, day-by-day diary, kept by a real girl, and anything resembling it that I could think of had been observed or made up, and written down, by adults. (Brant, 1981, p.viii)
The only partial exception she will allow is Anne Frank's diary, 'but its forced maturity and closed atmosphere are tragically different from the authentic child-likeness, the classical sunlight and simplicity of this one'.
To sum up, then, Bishop makes it plain that she considers the virtues of the Diary to be partially 'literary' (Dona Alice's own skill at composition, at shaping an anecdote – 'the right quotation, or detail, the gag-line, and where to stop'), and partially fortuitous (the fact that it really happened, that Helena's descriptions illuminate not just her own adolescent mind, but also the life of the small town in which she lives). Anne Frank, too, fulfils these two criteria – but her environment inspires the wrong sort of response, a 'forced maturity'. If we take Blake's Songs of Innocence (1789) as the exemplar of the Romantic cult of childhood to which Bishop is tentatively referring in this passage ('authentic child-likeness ... classical sunlight'), then we can see that the Diary's factual nature is, indeed, a god-send to mythologizers. Here, finally, is confirmation of the verisimilitude of at least Huckleberry Finn (1884), if not of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.
Although Helena enjoys writing (as she mentions on several occasions) it is to please her father and teachers that she produces these 'compositions'. Nor is there any element of invention in what is contained within – the only 'artifice' being the way in which incidents are grouped around a central theme. Best of all, though, her account largely confirms 'adult' images of idyllic childhood (an interpretation fostered by the author herself fifty years later: 'you do not need to pity poor little girls just because they are poor. We were so happy! Happiness does not consist in wordly goods but in a peaceful home, in family affections, in a simple life without ambition' (Brant, 1981, p.xxvi)). The young Helena would never have been guilty of such sententious reflexions – and neither would Mark Twain or the Wordsworths in their respective accounts of childhood, but one can see, nevertheless, that it is their adult world that Dona Alice Brant has come to inhabit. In a sense, then, Helena Morley is as alien to her as to them.
This reading of Bishop's is certainly a cogent one, and one that influences her entire presentation of the text – but it is not necessarily exhaustive. Her introduction seems, despite its listing details of local custom and belief, to blur deliberately the question of how much of the appeal of the Diary is, in fact, 'universal' – and therefore implicitly the same for Brazilian and English-speaking readers – and how much is culturally specific in a more complex way. In the long passage quoted above. we can see the problem focussed with some clarity.
Take the names of the two main characters, for example – Emídio and José Pedro. The action takes place in 'Rio Grande' Street. These names seem quintessentially 'Latin American' to an English or American reader, and draw behind them, willy-nilly, a whole complex of associations. It is hard to see how they could seem anything but neutral and commonplace to a Brazilian. Then there are certain customs dimly intimated by the narrative – the habit of 'whistling' to summon help, or, for that matter, of sitting around at the chácara (a word which Bishop chooses to gloss, rather than seeking an English alternative), all morning, waiting for people to come by with news – which seem perhaps disproportionately intriguing to the foreign reader. Finally, both the physical and social landscape of the story have different associations for indigenous and outside audiences. The fact that the 'mysterious thief' turns into an ant-hill (or, at other times, a tree-trunk) is significant in both these respects. Ant-hills (which we might tend to associate with Africa and the veldt), must be a common sight around Diamantina if one of them can provide effective camouflage. What is more, they must be visible even in what appears to be the centre of the town ('near the church of the Glória'). From just any small town, then, Diamantina turns into an exotic desert capital, with withered trees and ant-hills vying with humans for a place on the streets.
More significantly, though, Helena's frankly voiced scepticism about the possibility of a man 'turning into an ant-hill or a tree-trunk or anything else' implies that this goes against the grain of public opinion. No-one else at the chácara seems to feel any doubt that the story is at least plausible, even if exaggerated in this instance. Even Helena seems to feel that it would be possible to take an ant-hill and lock it up in jail (by digging it up with a spade?), upon which 'it would have to turn back into a man again' – referring unconsciously to a set of folk-beliefs about metamorphoses which she may not realize she possesses. Nor does she cast any doubt on the existence of the thief. His exploits may be fictional, but 'We'll all sleep easier when this mysterious thief is caught' – a non-sequitur, given the terms of her argument, but also a practical acknowledgement of the fact that they are all theorizing from insufficient data.
One could go on to refer to the institution of the 'store' in this small town, by reference to some of the other entries (as Bishop puts it, 'one sometimes gets the impression that the greater part of the town, black and white, "rich" and poor, when it hasn't found a diamond lately, gets along by making sweets and pastries. brooms and cigarettes and selling them to each other' (Brant, 1981, p.xxvii)), but enough has been said to make the point. For a Brazilian audience, the principal virtue of the diary must be its appeal to nostalgia – to a simpler, happier past when metropolitan sophistication had not yet begun to 'corrupt' the culture. The folk-belief of a man turning into an ant-hill seems just as unlikely to such a reader, but not so unfamiliar – similarly with the landscape, the customs, the names. The unfamiliarity of certain aspects of one's own country always has a sense of the proprietary mingled with it – they cannot be as surprising as they would be to a foreign visitor.
For an English-speaking reader, however, everything about the surface of this narrative is exotic and strange – the ingrained superstitions, a town being terrorized by a thief, the names, the institutions. Indeed, paradoxically, one's first reaction tends to be to concentrate only on the familiar aspects of 'universal' experience – a little girl, a small town, a thief, a store. When one reads further, however, and finds that something else is meant by 'store', and that the very streets of this town do not resemble those we know, then a sense of dislocation results, The blow is, of course, cushioned by Bishop's introduction (and strong advocacy of the book's merits) – and finally this simultaneous alienness and familiarity comes to constitute one of the book's chief attractions. One comes to know Helena and, through her, to gain a sense of her surroundings.
It is obvious, though, when the book is looked at in this light, that this is a difference in 'reader-reponses' which goes beyond a mere shift of language and register. One need not invoke the intentional fallacy with Minha Vida de Menina – it is a book that accreted, rather than being deliberately composed towards a foreseen end. How one reads it, then, depends to an unusual extent on the social context in which it is being understood, and (in English at any rate), the agenda for such readings has been established by Elizabeth Bishop.
To define further the differences between these two books – the Portuguese original and Bishop's translation – it will, however, be necessary to go deeper into the processes of translation itself. We must be careful to avoid attributing to a particular concatenation of circumstances and of texts what is typical of any transference from one language to another.
[Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)]
(b) Walter Benjamin
In After Babel (1975), his seminal work about the implications of translation as a clue to the mechanisms of language, George Steiner comments of a French prose translation of Paradise Lost:
In Paradis perdu Chateaubriand's idiom is a French under immediate pressure of Latin – as, of course, is so much of ordinary French and of Chateaubriand's own style. But it is also a French which suggests that it has behind it an equivalent to an Authorized Version. As is often pointed out, no such equivalent exists. But its imaginary felt presence is unmistakable when French masters translate those works of Enflish poetry and prose in which the Bible is a shaping precedent. (Steiner, 1976, p.318)
Taken to an extreme, this idea might encourage the Borgesian paradoxes of 'Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote', in which a minor French symbolist decides to rewrite Cervantes' novel word for word, without reference to the text – relying on memory and his knowledge of the period. As the narrator of Borges' story puts it, referring to a comparison between Cervantes and one of the fragments left behind by Menard:
También es vívido el contraste de los estilos. El estilo arcaizante de Menard – extranjero al fin – adolece de alguna afectación. No así el del precursor, que maneja con desenfado el español corriente de su época. (Borges, 1985, II: 132)
['The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard - quite foreign, after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.' (Borges, 1979, p.69)]
The wording of the two quoted passages is absolutely identical.
Nevertheless, there is a certain truth hidden under the ingenuity of Borges' fable – one which refers directly to the point made by Steiner. A piece of writing does not simply stand by itself, conveying meaning – it bears within it the history of the evolution of the language in which it is written, and (more to the point) of the literary tradition within which it was composed. Thus the speech rhythms and vocabulary of Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) betray the influence not just of Hebrew – but of a particular translation from the Hebrew, and this despite the fact that Milton himself was fluent in that language. In order to translate something resembling the effect of Milton's work into French, it is necessary almost to construct a 'ghost' Authorized Version.
In the case mentioned by Borges, too, the fact that the two pieces of the Quijote quoted by him are identical in wording does not mean that they are identical in effect or implication. Cervantes, as the narrator remarks, is indulging in 'un mero elogio retórico de la historia' (Borges, 1985, II: 132) ['mere rhetorical praise of history' (Borges, 1979, p.69)]. – Menard, on the other hand, 'contemporáneo de William James, no define la historia como una indagación de la realidad sino como su origen. La verdad histórica, para él, no es lo que sucedió; es lo que juzgamos que sucedió' (Borges, 1985, II: 132) ['a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened' (Borges, 1979, p.69). A translator, even if he rendered the two passages identically, would have to be conscious of the fact that what is a tour de force of pastiche in one case is merely contemporary idiomatic language in the other.
The implications of this matter go further still, however. George Steiner mentions as an extreme example of the 'case for translation':
Walter Benjamin's view of the translator as one who elicits, who conjures up by virtue of unplanned echo a language nearer to the primal unity of speech than is either the original text or the tongue into which he is translating ... This is why, says Benjamin, 'the question of the translatability of certain works would remain open even if they were untranslatable for man' (Steiner, 1976, p.244)
The essay to which Steiner is referring is 'The Task of the Translator', first published in 1923 as the introduction to Benjamin's translation into German of Baudelaire's Tableaux parisiens (1861), and it does indeed put forward a more 'messianic' view of the translator's function. ff, for the sake of convenience, we take our three quotations as representative of their author's positions (a gross oversimplification, particularly in the case of Steiner), we might see Steiner's view as being that a successful translation (by a 'master') implies a reconstitution in the host language of the entire literary tradition relevant to that work in its original form. Borges' view goes further still, seeing the same arrangement of words as implying totally different things depending on their literary and cultural context – Chateaubriand is a translator, Pierre Menard a re-creator (a more difficult task, Borges implies, than that of the original author). Benjamin, in a certain sense, supplies a synthesis of the two – the translator, for him, in the act of translation, inhabits a transcendental realm between languages, thus repairing for a moment the ancient rift of Babel. The creator's vision, too, must originate in this 'more final realm of language' (Steiner, 1976, p.244), but descends subsequently to particularities – the act of translation thus seizes the essence of a work in the process of transferring it to another language in a way that its author, bound up with its potentialities, cannot do. Benjamin goes on to explain the different characteristics of 'originals' and translations:
no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change. Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process. The obvious tendency of a writer's literary style may in time wither away ... What sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later; what was once current may someday sound quaint. (Benjamin, 1977, p.73)
The same process of change applies to translations too, however:
just as the tenor and the significance of the great works of literature undergo a complete transformation over the centuries, the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well. While a poet's words endure in his own language, even the greatest translation is destined to become part of the growth of its own language and eventually to be absorbed by its renewal. Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own. (Benjamin, 1977, p.73)
The discussion can now be seen to bear directly on the point at issue – the difference between the two versions of Helena Morley's Diary. To Benjamin, the difference between an original and a translation is that the former evolves with its language – always taking on new forms and meanings, like a landscape shifted by tectonic pressures. The latter must be superseded by this process because it is forced to undergo two directions of strain – the evolution in meaning of its original, and the changes within its own language. And since translation is, in Benjamin's reading, the ultimate hermeneutic act, it is obviously desirable that it be repeated as often as can be justified by this continuous transformation.
The somewhat arbitrary use of the names of our three theoreticians might be further applied to the case of Helena Morley. Steiner's view of translation necessitates some discussion of the Brazilian literary context of Minha Vida de Menina (a more problematic task than it might seem, given the wide disparity between the composition of the material in the book, and its editing and publication). Borges's requires an account of the different readings inspired by what is essentially the same textual artefact in different contexts – a subject which we have touched upon already, but which will require a more extensive account of Elizabeth Bishop and her literary antecedents if it is to be explored in detail. Finally, Benjamin's gives us essentially an overview of the entire process of transposition from one language to another, and it is this which I propose to deal with now.
If one were to imagine a simple line graph, with 'time' as one axis and 'language' as the other, the argument might be presented in diagrammatic form:
Time - Language
- 1950s - Bishop's translation & introduction - ENGLISH
- 1940s - Dr. Brant edits & publishes the 'Diary' - PORTUGUESE
- 1890s - Dona Alice writes her notes - PORTUGUESE
- 1860s - Richard F. Burton in Diamantina - ENGLISH
As the graph makes clear, the English version in a sense encloses the Portuguese. Helena Morley does indeed refer at one point to an Englishman who 'wrote a book in which he told the story of the party [which her grandfather rook him to] and spoke about grandma and grandpa and my aunts and uncles' (Brant, 1981, p.179), but it is left to Bishop to confirm that this was Sir Richard Burton, and to quote some passages from his account. Thus, in English, the history of the Diary begins in the 1880s, at the time of the visit, and ends (at any rate for Bishop), in the 1950s, when her translation was composed and published - leaving aside minor details such as her postscript to the 1977 edition, reprinted in Collected Prose (Giroux, 1984, pp.108-9). The emphasis must, however, be laid on the 1950s as the date of the translation's idiom, as that is the moment at which Elizabeth Bishop's English intersects the original Portuguese.
The Portuguese version has a simpler (and therefore more linguistically malleable) provenance. The words – even if a little tidied by the editor – are those of a young girl in the 1890s. The preface added by Dona Alice to the original publication merely serves to emphasize this point. The difference between the two paradigms might be presented in an equation:
1890 > 1940 = Minha Vida de Menina
1869 (1890 > 1940) 1957 = The Diary of 'Helena Morley'
Nor is one forced to rely solely on the word of Walter Benjamin for the 'buckling' effect that a more complex equation has on a linguistic artefact. Elizabeth Bishop's translation, so seamlessly contemporary when it first appeared, must increasingly as time goes by appear as an artefact of the 1950s (like the early Penguin Classics, dedicated to 'plain style' and eschewing false archaisms). The version prepared by Dr. Brant, however, can only increase its importance as a window on the 1890s with our gradual separation from that era. Thus, as Benjamin puts it, we are left with an original which undergoes 'a maturing process', while 'even the greatest translation is destined to become part of the growth of its own language and eventually to be absorbed by its renewal'. There may never be another English translation of Minha Vida de Menina, as the vogue of such books depends on shifts of literary fashion, but those works (like Homer) which are translated anew in every generation provide us with the only sure evidence of how our predecessors read the text. The Greek words look essentially the same now as they did then. but not only an entire philosophy of reading but a series of shifts in the language itself separate Chapman from E. V. Rieu. It is in this sense that Walter Benjamin asserts the eschatological role – the idea of an enterprise carried out above and beyond the actual parole of language – of the translator. Or, as Franz Rosenzweig put it:
Every translation is a messianic act, which brings redemption nearer. (Steiner, 1976, p.244)
[Pasternak and Akhmatova in the 1940s]
Marina Tsvetayeva to Rainer Maria Rilke, July 6th 1926:
Writing poetry is in itself translating, from the mother tongue into another, whether French or German should make no difference. No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it. (Pasternak, Tsvetayeva & Rilke, 1988, p.169)
I have attempted, using the terms of Benjamin's paradigm of translation, to reconstitute the relationship between Helena Morley's Diary in the original and in translation; it now remains to satisfy the requirements of Borges and Steiner, in that order. Steiner's idea of the 'imaginary felt presence' of a literary tradition behind any self-conscious translation of a work of literature will, as has already been pointed out, require an account of the Brazilian antecedents of the Diary - the particular 'ghosts' of which its translator had to be continually aware – and this I shall be attempting in Section 3 of this chapter. To satisfy Borges's demand for a recognition of the different readings to which one text can be subjected in two different cultural contexts, I recognize no less of a need for a sketch of the literary milieu of Elizabeth Bishop and her contemporaries, as well.
In Ronald Hingley's book Nightingale Fever (1982) he charts the relationship between four of the greatest Russian poets of this century: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam. If we consider the close ties – personal, poetic, and political – between the the first three of these writers, we may find a precedent for 'placing' Elizabeth Bishop in relation to two of her own contemporaries: Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell.
Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were close friends and also close poetic collaborators (Lowell said in a review of Bishop's first book North & South (1946) that 'Although Bishop would be unimaginable without Moore, her poems add something to the original, and are quite as genuine' (Giroux, 1987, p.78)). Unlike Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, who also addressed verses to each other, there was little rivalry between them (though Bishop does complain of the theft of an occasional phrase in her 'Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore'). Bishop goes on to make it clear that the relationship was like that with a maiden aunt or very much older sister, and perhaps this difference in generations explains the stability of the influence:
Marianne once gave me her practical rules for the use of indecent language, She said, 'Ordinarily, I would never use the word rump. But I can perfectly well say to Mother, "Mother, there's a thread on your rump["], because she knows that I'm referring to Cowper's pet hare, ,"Old Tiney," who liked to play on the carpet and "swing his rump around!"' (Giroux, 1984, p.130).
The relationship between Bishop and Lowell may have been slightly more important for him than her (judging, at any rate, from their surviving letters and dedications), whereas that between Tsvetayeva and Pasternak was more evenly weighted – but both male poets seem to have adopted their female counterparts as a sort of poetic conscience. This is seen most clearly in Lowell's account of the genesis of 'Skunk Hour', one of his most famous poems: 'The dedication is to Elizabeth Bishop, because rereading her suggested a way of breaking through the shell of my old manner. Her rhythms, idiom, images, and stanza structure seemed to belong to a later century. "Skunk Hour" is modeled on Miss Bishop's "The Armadillo," a much better poem and one I had heard her read and had later carried around with me' (Giroux, 1987, p.227). The words might just as easily have come from one of the many letters in which Pasternak attempts to sum up the influence of Tsvetayeva's 'Poem of the End' or 'Poem of the Mountain' on him (Pasternak et al., 1988, pp.22 & 43-47). This aspect of Bishop's and Lowell's friendship culminated in the letter which she wrote him after seeing the first version of his autobiographical poem The Dolphin (1973):
One can use one's life [as] material – one does, anyway – but these letters [from Lowell's second wife] – aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission – IF you hadn't changed them ... etc. But Art just isn't worth that much. I keep remembering Hopkins' marvellous letter to Bridges about the idea of a 'gentleman' being the highest thing ever conceived – higher than a 'Christian' even, certainly than a poet. It is not being 'gentle' to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way – it's cruel. (Hamilton, 1983, p.423)
We can, then, see almost a chain of literary decorum stretching from Moore to Bishop and on to Lowell – a set of (half-mocking) attitudes towards words which mirror a deadly seriousness about the 'material' of one's life. Extending the discussion to include the role of 'Helena Morley' – a work of art which 'really happened' – in Bishop's creative life, translation holds once again, I think, the key to reconciling the two.
Going back to the quotation from Tsvetayeva with which I prefaced this section, one is struck by her claim that: 'Writing poetry is in itself translating'. Like the Russians, our three American poets had always two different reasons for translating foreign poets into English. On the one hand, on the technical level, there was the notion of 'keeping one's hand in' when other inspiration was lacking. As Lowell put it:
I believe that poetic translation – I would call it an imitation - must be expert and inspired, and needs at least as much technique, luck and rightness of my hand as an original poem. (Giroux, 1987, p.233)
On the other hand, in both cases, there is an element of political and cultural protest about this insistence in immersing oneself in the poetry of foreign predecessors and contemporaries.
If one casts, say, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost as representing a poetry embedded 'in the American grain' – in conscious reaction against the cosmopolitanism of Eliot and Pound – then Lowell, Moore and Bishop might be seen as the first poets to become internal émigrés in America. In protest against the 'know-nothingism' of their compatriots, they adopted an almost exaggeratedly mandarin stance – but one that also emphasized the extent to which American tradition is European tradition. Thus Lowell's early poems use seventeenth century metaphysical techniques to evoke the history of New England; thus the erudite and complex diction of Moore's lyrics (whether describing an engraving of Dürer's or an animal at the zoo); and thus the allegorical dream-landscapes - 'Like Kafka's' (Giroux, 1987, p.78), to quote Robert Lowell - of Bishop's 'The Man-Moth', 'The Map' and 'The Gentleman from Shallot'. Their actual translations became almost necessary adjuncts of this stance – proof that this dependence on the past was not simply parasitism but creative cooperation. Lowell, then, translated Racine, Baudelaire, and Aeschylus in separate volumes; Propertius and Dante in the context of his own books of poems; and a range of poets from the Greeks to Pasternak in Imitations (1961), his show-piece in the genre. Moore, predictably, was more exclusive and concentrated – choosing to confine herself to the Fables of La Fontaine, a selection from which she published in 1954.
Bishop writes interestingly of this enterprise:
A conflict between traditional rhymes and meters came during the seven years (1946-53) Marianne worked on translating La Fontaine's Fables. For my own amusement, I had already made up a completely unscientific theory that Marianne was possessed of a unique, involuntary sense of rhythm, therefore of meter, quite unlike anyone else's. She looked like no one else; she talked like no one else; her poems showed a mind not much like anyone else's; and her notions of meter and rhyme were unlike all the conventional notions – so why not believe that the old English meters that still seem natural to most of us ... were not natural to her at all? That Marianne from birth, physically, had been set going to a different rhythm?
... Marianne was doing her best, one saw, to go umpty-umpty-um when she sensed that La Fontaine had gone that way, but it seemed to be almost – I use the word again – physically impossible for her to do so. (Giroux, 1984, pp.139-40)
She concludes that these translations 'made me realize more than I ever had before the rarity of true originality, and also the sort of alienation it might involve'. Translation can thus be seen also as a way of adjusting to the outside world – of measuring your own conceptions against those of others; and, by making the one fit the other, seeming yourself to fit in better.
Bishop's translations are significantly different both in character and intention from those of Moore and Lowell. La Fontaine and the poets Lowell 'imitates' were all readily accessible to their audience – if not in the original, at any rate in other translations. The point of the exercise was therefore the virtuosity with which the exchange had been managed – almost, an attempt to defamiliarize the too familiar. With Bishop, on the other hand, the works she chose – the Brazilian poets in the Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972), which she co-edited; Minha Vida de Menina; and even (at the time) Octavio Paz – were all more or less unknown to the English-speaking public. This gave her both greater licence and a greater responsibility. It also provided a clearer set of echoes in her own life and writing.
This is shown in two ways – first, as an influence on her own choice of subjects (it seems probable that the autobiographical narratives which she began writing in the early sixties were as much influenced by the technique and tone of Helena's Diary as by the example of Lowell's poetic memoir '91 Revere St' in Life Studies (1959)); and secondly, as a extension of the attitude towards composition already displayed in her own work. As Marianne Moore put it, in her review of 'Senhora Helena':
That a translator should share the qualities of work translated, Miss Bishop exemplifies in her gift for fantasy, her use of words and hyper-precise eye. The attitude to life revealed by the Diary, Helena's apperceptiveness, and innate accuracy, seem a double portrait; the exactness of observation in the introduction being an extension, in manner, of Miss Bishop's verse and other writing, as when she differentiates between marbleized or painted window-frames to imitate stone, and stone ones painted to imitate grained wood (Willis, 1987, p.524)
To sum up, then, the significance of 'Helena Morley' in Bishop's own oeuvre is almost that of a 'double portrait'. Moore meant this phrase to mean that Bishop's translation was as much about herself as about Helena Morley (or Dona Alice Brant), but one could also take it to imply a general reaction to culture 'South of the border'. The late forties and early fifties, when Bishop first left the United States to live in Brazil, were the period of the Latin American 'boom' in American popular culture. Carmen Miranda, Gilda (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), even Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's Road to Rio (1947) are all examples of the assimilation of a vulgarized form of 'South American' culture into North American life. To Bishop, on the other hand, life in South America meant escape from the over-familiar, the too-thoroughly assimilated. Seeing past the patina of cultural assumptions which overlaid all aspects of Western life had become impossible, so Bishop in her early writing had had to take refuge in fantasy ('The Man-Moth', 'The Gentleman of Shalott') and dressing up the ordinary ('The Fish', 'The Monument'). In Brazil, though, life was literally (in the words of her introduction to the Diary) 'as fresh as paint' (Giroux, 1984, p.109) – she had said of the Cuban 'primitive' painter Gregorio Valdes 'it seems that some people receive certain "gifts" merely by remaining unwittingly in an undemocratic state of grace', and it is surely these same qualities of 'freshness, flatness, and remoteness' (Giroux, 1984, pp.58-59) that she is attempting to emulate in poems like 'Arrival at Santos':
Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and – who knows? – self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,
With a little church on top of one. (Bishop, 1984, p.89)
Instead of having to attach exotic features to the quotidian, here all the exoticism is provided by the surroundings – all Bishop needs to do is exercise a classical restraint in describing it. There is a coast, and a harbour, some mountains with a church on top of one – but it is Bishop's refusal to dress up her material, to impose the customary features of landscape 'evocation' which make the Brazilian poems in Questions of Travel (1965) and the later volumes remarkable. In 'The Riverman', for example, she speaks in the voice of an Amazonian Indian who wishes to become a witch doctor by visiting the spirits at night. The situation is enough; no further elaboration is required. Her task is simply to suppress all expressions of surprise or wonder, to eschew ornate diction, and to convey an impression of what it is to be this man. His certainties, for the period of the poem, must become ours.
Translation, too, is part of this process. Not just in 'Helena Morley', but in the many poems she translated from the Brazilian, Bishop subordinates herself to the task of letting another voice speak, and – having chosen that voice, those surroundings, with care – succeeds in speaking as herself more truly than before. Just as for Moore the process of poetic translation consists of 'proving she can do it', and, on a deeper level, of demonstrating that her novelties and the other poet's traditional form are, in essence, one and the same thing; so for Bishop the rejection of romanticism means finding the most 'romantic' and exotic of landscapes, and painting it with almost exaggerated restraint. Just as Lowell and Pasternak are forced by the 'year zero' of modern Russia and America to make a point of the assertion of tradition and continuity, so Bishop justifies her own sense of deracination (half-Canadian, half-American) and lack of a home by asserting the fascinations of geography and travel. It is also significant, in this context. that 'It was only when she moved to Brazil in about 1950 that she lived with a woman permanently' (Hamilton, 1983, p.135) and gave up the attempt to hide her own homosexual identity. Again South America served to focus the arbitrariness of former cultural constraints.
Bishop, then, 'translates herself' – and her writing – through the shift to South America. 'Helena Morley' is, admittedly, only one part of this process – but a significant one, given the fact that it not only provided a model for her later prose, but also another vehicle for the precision and insight already achieved by her in her poems. Certainly it is a far more satisfactory one than the 'Time-Life' book about Brazil which she wrote in 1962. The example of Moore and Lowell - himself the author of poems about Buenos Aires and Brazil (Lowell, 1965, pp.60-62) - undoubtedly played a role in this transformation as well, but precisely how much is difficult to reconstruct from the meagre harvest of memoirs and letters that remain. The comparison with our three Russian poets has had to serve instead to focus both the generalized issues of translation and the specific dynamics of poetic influence. As Pasternak once put it:
translation is conceivable because for centuries before our time whole literatures have translated one another. Translation is not a method of getting to know isolated works; it is the channel whereby cultures and peoples communicate down the centuries. (Pasternak, 1984, p.12)
The double exposure of Bishop's poetic culture on Brazil, of modern America on the Soviet Union, is perhaps as close as we can come in the discursive mode of the essay to that 'eschatological' moment of insight into the reality behind specific verbal forms which, according to Benjamin, is achieved by the ideal translator.
[Lowell and Bishop (1962)]
Minha Vida de Menina
We have, in a sense, already compiled a series of readings of Minha Vida de Menina – first (Bishop's own suggestion), as a childhood memoir, that genre exemplified by The Diary at Anne Frank or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; and secondly, as a work whose nature was to some extent defined by its divergence from Elizabeth Bishop's English translation. To an English-speaking reader, it is clear, the book must be an embodiment of the exotic – a compendium of the customs and attitudes of a small Brazilian town at the end of the nineteenth century. To a Brazilian, on the other hand, the book's 'Brazilian-ness' can hardly be so prominent, which means that stress is laid instead on nostalgia for a lost, innocent past.
What both of these readings have in common, though, is a sense of reassurance that an environment so alien (to the English or American reader), or an epoch so distant (to the Brazilian), should seem so familiar, so assimilable to one's own experience. Bishop acknowledges this ('odd, remote, and long ago, and yet fresh, sad, funny. and eternally true' (Brant, 1981, p.viii)), not only by comparing certain passages in the book with Homer or Mark Twain, but also in the indirect homage she paid it by taking over some of its tone – precision without sentimentality, a refusal to impose an adult perspective on childhood concerns – in her own autobiographical writings. The fact that it 'really happened', what is more, emphasizes the point that such alleged universals of human experience are not merely literary conventions, but have some basis in fact. Dona Alice, too, when she wrote her 1942 preface to the book, seemed to feel that it restored the divisions between her two selves – the child of 12 and the woman of 60 (however much this is belied by the style of the reflections written by each of them):
how beautiful life was then! And how many stories of my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my teachers, my schoolmates and friends, how many of my own outbursts and complaints – things I no longer remembered after so manv vears – came back to me when I reread my old notebooks! (Brant, 1981, p.xxxvi)
The purpose of this section, in contradistinction, is to emphasize the discordant elements in the Diary – the features just below the surface which belie this assumption of easy comprehension. This is not so much in order to contradict these other readings, as to place them in their proper perspective. I intend, therefore, to take two more-or-less contemporary works of Brazilian literature – Machado de Assis's novel Helena (1876 – revised: 1905) and Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões (1902) – in order to tease out some aspects of Helena Morley's Brazilian context masked by the 'universalism' of the English translation.
Machado de Assis is generally regarded as Brazil's finest novelist, and his writing career spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The novel Helena is not one of his most celebrated works, but it has always been extremely popular – perhaps because of the unabashed romanticism of its plot. I have chosen it, therefore, not simply because of the coincidence of names (which is unlikely to have been particularly significant in Helena's milieu), but because it serves to highlight the sorts of themes common in the 'society literature' of the day.
Euclides da Cunha has already been discussed at some length in Chapter Three above, so I will simply reiterate here the fact that the events described in Os Sertões took place in the mid-1890s (just after the end of the Diary), and that they were inspired by the same set of factors – the emancipation of the slaves, the fall of the Empire and consequent establishment of the Republic – to which Helena continually makes reference. Contrasting the two, then, seems a legitimate way of highlighting Helena's social and political concerns – the precise opposite, in some cases, of those of her 'papa'.
Let us begin with a representative quotation from the Diary:
Perhaps it was mean of me to enjoy what I saw yesterday. I suppose I should have felt sorry to see such a pretty girl as Quita fall down like that in the middle of church, in a faint. But I can't help saying here that I liked the excitement very much. I'd never seen anyone have an attack and I thought it was all very amusing ... The boys should have been the ones to carry her but they all stood around with foolish faces ...
I thought Quita was lucky to have such pretty things to show when they began to undo her clothes. Petticoat, corset-cover, corset, chemise, all embroidered and very pretty. We were all envious of the pretty things she had hidden. I left wondering what would happen to me if I had an attack like hers, I, who don't have anything pretty for the others to see ... I said to mama, 'When they undid her clothes and so many pretty things appeared, I was envious of the attack and thought it was all very romantic. But finally I thanked God it wasn't me: Suddenly Luizinha had an idea. 'When you do have a lot of pretty underwear, you can pretend to have an attack like hers. I think it would be easy.' (Brant, 1981, pp.121-22)
Contrast this rather unedifying exchange with the following scene from de Assis's Helena:
At the touch of Estacio's arm, she trembled and made a movement as if to push him from her but her broken strength played traitor to her sense of shame. As she looked at him her eyes were those of a wounded doe, her knees gave way beneath her, and her weakened body would have sunk to the ground if Estacio's hands had not held her.
'Let me die!' she murmured.
'No!' he shouted. And with a swift gesture he lifted her limp body in his arms and started toward the house. The wind lashed them brutally; a sudden downpour of rain streamed over them in an immense sheet of water. Estacio kept going as fast as the weight of Helena's body permitted. Her head hung back toward the earth; her lips uttered disconnected, senseless phrases. (de Assis, 1987, p.193)
At first sight, one is tempted to say that the second passage is like the first retold from Quita's point of view – allowing for Gerty MacDowell-like exaggeration – but this is not quite sufficient to explain the disparities. Given the different genres – romantic novel and diary – it is natural enough that the boys in Helena's account 'all stood around with foolish faces', while the other Helena's foster-brother (and lover) Estacio 'with a swift gesture ... lifted her limp body in his arms' (in the first passage this role is left to Chiquinha, who 'is big and fat, [while] Quita is small and thin' (Brant, 1981, p.122)). The different reactions of the two Helenas to the question of underclothes is more notable, however. Earlier in the novel 'Helena' (whom I will refer to thus in order to distinguish her from the author of the Diary) has gone riding with her brother:
Dona Ursula had lent her a riding habit ... The dress fitted her badly: it was much too large for the slender, girlish figure, but her natural elegance made one forget the accessory of clothing. (de Assis, 1987, p.39)
There is rather an ogling, roguish tone about this forgetting the 'accessory of clothing' – but one feels certain that 'Helena', at least, has not forgotten it. As Helen Caldwell, the translator, remarks in her preface, 'The author does not permit us to know the workings of her mind, We are allowed to see her actions and hear her conversation; we see her smile and weep, but we are never privy to her thoughts' (de Assis, 1987, p.ix). In short, then, what appears to be the romantic idealization of the character 'Helena' in the first quotation stems from the fact that the entire narrative is portrayed from Estacio's point of view. It may be that 'Helena' is worried about her underwear as she is being rushed to the house – the laws of 'significant omission' (anything physical, anything likely to seem bathetic), in such novels leave this a matter for speculation. Far from being a case of immature lack of comprehension of 'adult' affairs, then, Helena's diary presents us with the hidden side of such narratives – the quotidian concerns which have been rejected as not sufficiently portentous. She shapes her stories into anecdotes, it is true, but she lacks the kind of internal censor, based on the external constraints of hierarchical Brazilian society, which it took Machado de Assis so long to break through.
His account of a ball given by the do Valle family is intensely conventional:
The night's festivities proceeded at a lively pace although the party was small. Some whirling waltzes, two or three quadrilles, cards, music, much conversation and laughter, such was the programme that filled the night's hours and made them short. (de Assis, 1987, p.78)
There is, it is true, much going on below the surface, but it is all of a type proper to balls – love affairs, betrothals and ambitious intrigues. In the Diary, by contrast, the particularities of emotion – embarrassment, indecision, fear of failure – which underlie such public events are intimated by an anecdote about another 'de Assis', her Uncle's clerk João, who cannot choose between a 'widow and an unmarried girl:
Today we laughed at him until we couldn't laugh any longer. He was invited to the dance last night at the Workmen's Society and the widow went, too. He got a dictionary, looked up the words, made up a sentence and went to Sérgio to see if it was nice enough to say to the widow. The sentence was: 'I feel great compunction at not having been able to invite you to a waltz up until now.' Sérgio pointed out to him that if the widow was a woman he had the gender wrong. He corrected the sentence, memorized it, and put the piece of paper in his pocket.
Today Sérgio asked him if he'd said the sentence without any trouble and he answered, 'Oh dear! When I went over to speak to her, before I could begin she got up, took my arm, and we started dancing. I was completely dumb because she didn't give me a chance to say the only words I had in my head.' (Brant, 1981, p.209)
João's situation is not unlike that of Estacio, who is betrothed to the daughter of a close friend while falling more in love every day with his foster-sister 'Helena', but the difference in the way the two situations is presented is immense. Helena sees it as an occasion for farce, and very successfully conveys that feeling we have all had of carefully preparing a speech only to have its delivery forestalled by circumstances. Machado de Assis, on the other hand, forces himself to inhabit Estacio's own priggish mind – and to present everything in terms of 'duty' and 'family honour'.
It is not that Helena's acuity is unique (though it is very creditable for a 14-year-old). On the contrary, I have already mentioned that the business of the underwear reminds us of the 'Nausicäa' episode in Ulysses (1922), and of course a girl's first experience of a ball has been evoked by Tolstoy's Natasha Rostova as well as by Katherine Mansfield. The point is, rather, that the setting and many of the events of Helena and Helena's diary are identical. They record the same customs and observances (though the characters in the novel are far more prosperous and well-born) – but the rigid laws of genre, echoes as these are of more widespread constraints in society, prohibit Machado de Assis from dwelling upon such 'low' things as underwear or embarrassment. To do him justice, his essentially Modernist sensibility is expressed far more cogently in the later novels - hymns to nihilism and futility; but 'Helena' herself, his first great heroine, could, it seems, only find a voice in the as yet unpublished observations of a coolly scrutinizing young girl.
[Emancipation of the Slaves in Brazil (1888)]
Today my father, like everyone else in town, is very pleased about Prudente de Moraes' taking office. There was joy in town when the telegram came, and everybody rejoiced as if it had been something for us. But papa says it's because nobody here likes Floriano, and they didn't expect he'd give up his office to Prudente, because he has great influence with the army ... I always say to papa that I can't get through my head why a change in presidents has any effect on us here in Diamantina. Papa says it has, because the government is a well-organized machine and that a good president and a good government benefits all Brazil and even us. I told him I'd only believe it if the president gave us water-pipes and repaired our streets. He said that those things aren't done by the president, in Rio de Janeiro, they're only done by a local man like Dr. Mata, who could even have a railroad built from here to Ouro Preto. If there's something I have no hope for in Diamantina, it's a railroad. But we don't really need one. Horseback is good enough. (Brant, 1981, p.168)
This political debate between Helena and her father might be said to sum up the arguments for political quietism and political activism – or scepticism against optimism. Helena accepts that her father knows more than she does about the workings of government, but she cannot see that all this has any appreciable effect on their own daily lives. This is, to be sure, a trifle naive – when one considers that the 'Floriano' to whom she refers is the victor of a bloody civil war, only just over, and that the 1888 freeing of the slaves, which she herself recalls, had given rise to the abdication of the Emperor and the founding of the Republic – but in the sense that these 'distant' events had made little impact on their poverty-stricken living conditions, there is a good deal of truth in her observations:
I still remember when the news of the law of the 13th of May [emancipating the slaves] came. The negroes all stopped working and got together in front of the house, dancing and singing that they were free and didn't want to work any more. Grandma, angry at all the shouting, went to the door and threatened them with her cane, and said, 'Away from my house, you good-for-nothings! Freedom came, but not for you, for me! Get out!' The negroes shut up and went to the senzala. In a little while Joaquim Angola came in the name of all the others to ask her pardon, and to say that they all wanted to stay. (Brant, 1981, p.177)
Helena was a little girl at the time, and (not surprisingly, given the way in which she was brought up), a little racist; nor does she really discuss the issues involved – but, in another sense, she was less blinkered to the facts of the situation than those who designed it. The emancipation meant nothing without a solid new economic infrastructure to support those who had been 'freed'. Not that this was an argument for perpetuating the status quo, but it at least explains why nothing significant changed in the economy of Diamantina.
The contrast with the sorts of analysis conducted by Euclides da Cunha - seemingly omniscient as geographer, historian and anthropologist – is extreme. Helena can see no benefit in political processes because they provoke a lot of argument and bad feeling without leaving anything tangible behind them; Euclides da Cunha is suspicious of a system which can generate an immense absurdity such as the Canudos campaign. In Diamantina, the politicians care too little; in the Backlands, they cared too much. True, da Cunha sees the conflict between the prosperous South and impoverished North-East as in many ways inevitable, but his comprehension – and rationalization – of the principles involved make him in a sense an accomplice to the crime. He can be seen to represent the viewpoint of Helena's father – a good government is of direct or indirect benefit to all its people (which is true but a truism), and one must therefore intervene to make the government as good as possible. Helena, on the other hand, sees such participation as absurd ('What I think is funniest on election day is that everyone takes sides and nobody forgives anyone who votes the other way. There's so much excitement in the town that one would think it really mattered to us. After the election nobody remembers it any more' (Brant, 1981, p.106)), and also as counterproductive, since it encourages bad feeling without giving anything back. Who, after all, she sagely concludes, really needs a railway?
The two positions are impossible to resolve, but Helena's is a more subtle and cogent one than might at first be credited. Women were, of course. scarcely encouraged to enter political debate in a society as paternalist as Brazil's – but the impoverished economy of Diamantina depended so largely on their efforts that their participation had to be solicited as well. The global view of a da Cunha is perhaps necessary to understand a cataclysm like Canudos, but even there – as Mario Vargas Llosa has shown in La guerra del fin del mundo (1981) – human, domestic, 'small-town' virtues are on a scale more appropriate to most human beings.
Thus, to conclude, we see that despite Dr. Brant's insistence on stopping the extracts from the Diary at the onset of Helena's adolescence, a sufficiently mature and complex picture of the society of Diamantina has emerged. We cannot see Helena's first essays in love – but we have her comments on its mechanisms all the same; nor do we hear her remarks on the impact of the Canudos casualty lists in 1897 – but her views on presidential elections make the focus of her vision clear enough. What is more, it could be argued that Helena, whose limitations as a writer (immaturity, lack of experience of other places) have been announced in advance, gives both a more knowledgeable and a less prejudiced picture of Diamantina and its people than the seemingly 'objective' Richard Burton twenty-five years before.
Helena, then, to return to our original point d'appui, becomes the ideal choice for the North American Woman Poet Elizabeth Bishop. Each of these attributes – American, Woman, and Poet – is important to the argument, because each is a potential source of alienation. Born in the United States but brought up in Canada, Bishop never felt assimilated into the almost oppressive sense of identity demanded of most Americans. As a Poet, she rejected the stale rhetoric and themes of much of the literary establishment, conditioned as these were by a male poet! female muse arrangement. As a Woman and a homosexual, she found the mores of her native land oppressive.
Brazil offered the answer to each of these dilemmas in turn. True, it had been written about extensively by her compatriots, but never with the insight and precision of someone who lived and belonged there. What is more, in placing her emphasis on indigenous poetry and writings, she could model herself on them, instead of subjecting them to the overwhelming weight of European 'New World' traditions. The minimalism of Helena Morley is thus ideal for her purposes – a writer who debates each question and incident as it comes, but is prepared finally to leave her conclusions open; someone whose deployment of rhetoric is confined to that associated with oral anecdote; and, finally, an America that seems for the first time to be presented as something natural. seen through its own eyes, instead of as a distorting mirror for the Old.
From Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Bishop, then, is not quite so large a leap as it might otherwise seem. Behn's technique in Oroonoko, as we have seen, consists of simultaneously sustaining and inverting the accepted commonplaces of 'Edenic' South America – an Adam and Eve who are black, a native race whose customs are admired because they outnumber the Europeans. Bishop, on the other hand, has the added resource of the writings of 'native' Brazilians and Latin Americans (albeit descendants of the original conquerors); and she thus makes out of translation itself – both from one language, and from one cultural context to another – the material of a similarly original vision.
In my final, concluding chapter, I shall be examining the implications of this novel twist in the fortunes of 'South America' as an icon of the European imagination, by attempting to provide a critical paradigm which can reconcile the twin influences of the traditional Western mythologies charted by us so far, and the force of the Latin American magic realist writing which is now being exercised in translation.
[Richard F. Burton (1821-1890)]
1. Bishop glosses the word chácara as 'a house with extensive gardens, or even a small farm, but not necessarily in the country' (Brant, 1981, p.xxxiii).
2. Though Bishop informs us that "'Helena" and "Morley" are both names from her English father's family' (Brant, 1981, p.ix).
3. 'Knowing that I and my sister have that failing of laughing at everything, how did papa have the courage to send a guest to our house the way he did? ... We are idiots about laughing. We began that night and even now we can't look at our guest without a fit of giggling. We just have to see the man and then we ... simply burst' (Brant, 1981, pp.85-86). Perhaps a few such attacks embarrassed Dr. Brant himself.
4. Paraphrasing a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins made further up the same page.
5. Following Bishop's practice, I refer thus to the author of the Diary, reserving the name 'Dona Alice' for the actual Senhora Brant.
6. The date of the language of each version is stressed, and the '>' sign – 'changed to' – is used to imply an edition or recension. (NB: '1880', in the scanned version of the diagram, is a misprint for '1869', the actual date of publication of Richard F. Burton's account of his trip to Brazil (Burton, 1969).
7. 'I confess to one very slight grudge: she did use a phrase of mine once without a note. This may be childish of me, but I want to reclaim it ... I am sometimes appalled to think how much I may have unconsciously stolen from her. Perhaps we are all magpies.' (Giroux, 1984, p.141).
8. As in the poem 'Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore':
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.
(Bishop, 1984, p.83)
There is undoubtedly some gentle irony in that 'bravely deplore'.
9. In order, after the two stories 'In the Village' and 'Gwendolyn' (1953), the following autobiographical items are included in Giroux (1984): 'Primer Class' (c.1960), 'The Country Mouse' (c.1961), 'The U.S.A. School of Writing' (c.1966) 'A Trip to Vigia' (c.1967), 'To the Botequim & Back' (c.1970), and 'Memories of Uncle Neddy' (1977).
10. As well as recalling a similar exchange between Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore recorded in 'Efforts of Affection':
Several times over the years Marianne asked me abruptly, 'Elizabeth, what do you have on under your dress? How much underwear do you wear?' I would enumerate my two or perhaps three undergarments, and Marianne would say, 'Well, I know that I [or, Mother and I] wear many too many.' (Giroux, 1984, p.133).
[Helena Morley: Minha vida de menina (1821-1890)]
- Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. 1955. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. 1968. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977.
- Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems 1927-1979. London: Chatto & Windus, 1984.
- Bishop, Elizabeth, and the Editors of 'Life'. Brazil. Life World Library. New York: Time/Life Books, 1963.
- Borges, Jorge Luis. Prosa completa. 4 vols. Barcelona, 1985.
- Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
- Brant, Dona Alice. The Diary of 'Helena Morley'. Trans. Elizabeth Bishop. London: Virago, 1981.
- Burton, Richard F. Explorations of the Highlands of the Brazil: with a Full Account of the Gold and Diamond Mines. Also, Canoeing Down 1500 Miles of the Great River Sao Francisco, from Sabani to the Sea. 1869. 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1969.
- de Assis, Machado. Helena: A Novel. Trans. Helen Caldwell. Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1987.
- Giroux, Robert, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: The Collected Prose. London: Chatto & Windus, 1984.
- Giroux, Robert, ed. Robert Lowell: Collected Prose. London: Faber, 1987.
- Hamilton, lan. Robert Lowell: A Biography. London: Faber, 1983.
- Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead. London: Faber, 1965.
- Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems. London, 1984.
- Pasternak, Boris. Selected Poems. Trans. Jon Stallworthy & Peter France. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
- Pasternak, Boris, Marina Tsvetayeva, & Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters Summer 1926. Ed. Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak & Konstantin L. Azadovsky. Trans. Margaret Wettlin & Walter Arndt. Oxford, 1988.
- Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 1975. Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 1976.
- Willis, Patricia C., ed. The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore. London, 1987.
[Angela Carter: The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1982)]