JOURNAL OF THE ODISHA ASSOCIATION FOR ENGLISH STUDIES (INDIA) Vol 7(1), 2017 – ARTICLE ON EDGAR ALLAN POE IN SPANISH TRANSLATION

Now published is Vol. 7(1) (2017) of the excellent Journal of the Odisha Association for English Studies, as always ably edited by Santwana Haldar from Baleswar, Odisha/Orissa, India (ISSN 2249-6726).

The issue includes an abundance of varied material (articles, poetry, book reviews), and a wide-ranging state-of-the-literary-world introduction by the editor in which she grapples with matters ranging from the deaths of Edward Albee and Dario Fo to Bob Dylan’s literature Nobel.

The articles include studies on Indian authors such as Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari (Jaydeep Sarangi), Mulk Raj Anand (Asish Kumar Manna), Arundhati Roy (Rajeshwar Mittapalli), Nissim Ezekiel (Diptendu Bikash Maiti), Vijay Tendulkar (Ujjal Kumar Panda) and Anita Desai (Dayanidhi Pradhan), on a number of authors writing in the Odia/Orissan language, e.g. Manoj Das (Rabi Narayan Dash), on non-Indian authors (Francesco Marroni on James Joyce and Alfred Döblin) and on broad educational issues (Souhila Boukhlifa and Fewzia Bedjaoui on conscious citizenry in the classroom).

The creative writing section includes poems by Shanta Acharya, Jaydeep Sarangi, Mona Dash and Prasanta Kumar Panda. Among the books reviewed are Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s novel ‘Before We Visit the Goddess’ and Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning ‘The Sellout’ (both by Santwana Haldar).

Also included is my own study of Spanish-language translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, given as a paper at Harvard University (American Comparative Literature Association conference) in 2016:

Christopher Rollason, ‘Edgar Allan Poe in Montevideo in 1919: On the volume of translations into Spanish “‘El cuervo’ y otros poemas (The Raven and Other Poems)’, Journal of the Odisha Association for English Studies, Baleswar (India), Vol. 7, Issue I, 2017, pp. 51-62 (also available at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/PoeinMontevideo1919.pdf).

Why Try To Change Him Now? Bob Dylan in Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg), 22 April 2017

The night of Saturday, 22 April 2017 witnessed Bob Dylan’s third appearance at the Rockhal concert venue in Esch-sur-Alzette, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg’s second city after the capital. Dylan had previously illuminated the Rockhal on 21 October 2011 and 16 November 2013, and as a resident of Esch I was present both times. Tonight was therefore, for both Bob Dylan and the author of this review, and appropriately enough in view of the title of his latest album, a … Triplicate occasion!

Since Dylan’s last date in Esch-sur-Alzette in 2013, much water has flowed under the bridge, the most notable events being his 2016 Nobel award and his recent recording wave of jazz‑era/Sinatra covers. Meanwhile, the setlist for the current tour, though once again for the most part fixed or all but fixed, is somewhat more representative than has recently been the case. Tonight’s setlist varied from that of the previous night (in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris) in only one particular, namely that among the Sinatra covers ‘Why Try to Change Me Now?’ replaced ‘I Could Have Told You’. The night’s 21 songs break down as follows: 60s and 70s ‘classic Dylan’ (up to ‘Blood on The Tracks’), 6; ‘later Dylan’ prior to 2012’s album ‘Tempest’, 4; ‘Tempest’, 5; Sinatra covers, 6. It is an open question how many in the audience were actual Dylan followers and aware of the content of his recent albums, and how many came away believing the evening’s Sinatra renditions to be recent Dylan compositions!

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Dylan opens with a gritty ‘Things Have Changed’, indisputably a suitable title for its author and an up-front warning to those expecting a full serving of 60s anthems. Next up, though, and as if to placate those who might walk out if Dylan performed nothing they knew, is no less an early-Dylan chestnut than ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, complete with the evening’s most folk-oriented arrangement. Then the 60s flame is fed anew with a blues-drenched rendition of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (Dylan sings all five stanzas), after which we fast-forward to a more recent, 21st-century Dylan with ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’, from ‘Together Through Life’..

Beyond there lies … something: indeed, something that may start surprising the audience, in the form of the night’s first Sinatra rendition and another appropriately titled song, ‘Why Try To Change Me Now?’, with Dylan fully inside a committed vocal and, as he will do with most of tonight’s Sinatra numbers, treating the song as if he had written it. There follows the evening’s first song from ‘Tempest’, ‘Pay in Blood’, which, familiar or not, pleases the crowd, its Rolling Stones pastiche sound no doubt aiding. Dylan then reverts to Sinatra mode with ‘Melancholy Mood’, after which comes an upbeat country-blues version of ‘Duquesne Whistle’, again from ‘Tempest’ (well received, though how many recognised in ‘at my chamber door’ a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe’s celebrated poem ‘The Raven’?). Next, it’s Sinatra time again, with Dylan’s fifth-ever performance (probably the best of the night’s shades-of-Frank numbers) of ‘Stormy Weather’, one of the songs from the new ‘Triplicate’ album and premiered a few nights before, in Amsterdam on 17 April.

There follows ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, in its current truncated four-stanza version (alas – this song is too good to deserve such pruning) but with some interesting alternative lyrics (the couple split up ‘somewhere in the wilderness’; the people they knew have – if I heard correctly – ‘their names aflame’). Dylan then returns to the blues with a vengeance, with the Muddy Waters-inspired ‘Early Roman Kings’ from ‘Tempest’. The next offering, ‘Spirit on the Water’ from ‘Modern Times’, while in this reviewer’s opinion a minor song which could happily be given a rest, in a sense fits with the Sinatra material by reason of its jazz arrangement. It is followed by a melodramatic rendition of the ‘Time Out Of Mind’ song ‘Love Sick’ – insistent, obsessive but in the end impressive – and by another Sinatra cover, ‘All or Nothing At All’.

The next offering is none other than ‘Desolation Row’, a song composed more than half a century ago but arguably still the best lyric Bob Dylan has ever written. For any performance of this song the bar is set high, and this version, while not the best ever, comes over as several notches above merely acceptable. It is rare that Dylan performs all 10 stanzas, and tonight we get 70% of the song in the form of stanzas 1, 2, 3, 6 (leather cup), 7 (Casanova), 8 (superhuman crew) and 10. The performance is almost word perfect, albeit stanza 1’s ‘beauty parlour’ has become a simple ‘parlour’: Dylan sings from inside the song, and the strongest moment comes in the ‘superhuman crew’ stanza, with a memorably sinister rendering of the lines ‘come out and round up everyone / that knows more than they do’.

The unfolding evening now brings us ‘Soon After Midnight’ from ‘Tempest’ (another minor song due for a sabbatical), ‘That Old Black Magic’ (probably the thinnest of the Sinatra covers), and a second ‘Tempest’-Sinatra coupling with an eloquent ‘Long and Wasted Years’ and a poignant ‘Autumn Leaves’.

Finally, the encores offer a pleasant surprise, with arguably the two best performances of the entire evening, and that on two old warhorses – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, 54 years on from its release, and ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ – both performed with riveting arrangements and full vocal commitment (Dylan blasts the hapless Mr Jones with audible relish as he curls his lips around ‘tax-deductible charity organisations’).

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There is no doubt that the vast majority of the audience have enjoyed the show, be they hardcore Dylan followers or not: applause greeted both famous and lesser-known songs. Dylan’s vocals have been for the most part audible, and lyrics slips have been few, and at all moments the professionalism and versatility of his musicians has delighted and astounded, as they effortlessly mutate between genres, from folk to blues to country to jazz. The Sinatra covers might seem numerically disproportionate at 6 songs out of 21, but the sense of incongruity is reduced by the multigeneric nature of the night’s music – in the end, these songs are as much part of Bob Dylan’s musical heritage as those that have influenced him in other and multiple genres. Tonight he threw out the challenge ‘Why Try To Change Me Now?’: the musical phenomenon called Bob Dylan is the product of a complex nexus of influences, and some will come up stronger than others at a given time. Dylan has written no new songs since his Nobel consecration, but this concert should have offered the doubters more than enough evidence, in the songs of his own authorship, that songwriting can be poetry and, yes, Bob Dylan is indeed a meritorious Nobel laureate.

Setlist:

Things Have Changed; Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right; Highway 61 Revisited; Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’; Why Try to Change Me Now?; Pay in Blood; Melancholy Mood; Duquesne Whistle; Stormy Weather; Tangled Up In Blue; Early Roman Kings; Spirit on the Water; Love Sick; All or Nothing At All; Desolation Row; Soon After Midnight; That Old Black Magic; Long and Wasted Years; Autumn Leaves; Blowin’ in the Wind; Ballad of a Thin Man

 

TRIPLE ALBUM AND TRIPTYCH – BOB DYLAN, POST-NOBEL COVER ARTIST

On 31 March 2017, Bob Dylan, recent (and controversial) Nobel literature laureate, released – on the eve of the next leg of the 75-year-old’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ – his 38th studio album, a 3-CD offering entitled ‘Triplicate’ and containing 30 songs. He had won the Nobel for 2016 for what the Swedish academy called his ‘new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. However, while the content of the album might pass as being part of that ‘great American song tradition’ – material from the 1930s and 40s like ‘Imagination’ as sung by Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra’s ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, or the Hoagy Carmichael composition ‘Stardust’ – not a single one of those 30 songs was written by the now-officially-a-poet Bob Dylan. Three of the songs – ‘I Could Have Told You’, ‘That Old Feeling’ and ‘How Deep is the Ocean?’- are not completely new to Dylan fans, having featured earlier in his stage set.

‘Triplicate’ is Dylan’s 7th studio album to consist entirely of cover versions (there are another three with a majority of covers), and is the third in a triptych of recordings of numbers from the Great American Songbook, the previous two being the Sinatra tribute ‘Shadows in the Night’ (2015) and its follow-up ‘Fallen Angels’ (2016). On ‘Triplicate’ – as on ‘Fallen Angels’ – all of the songs but one were recorded at some point by Sinatra (on ‘Shadows in the Night’ they all were).

Dylan has produced diptychs or triptychs of generically similar material before – the three religious albums from the late 70s and early 80s, ‘Slow Train Coming’, ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love’, and the early-90s acoustic folk/blues pair ‘Good As I Been To You’ and ‘World Gone Wrong’. Now we have a ‘Triplicate’ of 30 songs, within a triad amounting to 50 – and all 50 are cover versions.

The CD box has no author credits for the songs. It is true that full credits can be found on the brand-new Wikipedia entry for the album, but this remains a curious omission for an album claimed to arise from Dylan’s admiration for his songwriting precursors (‘Shadows in the Night’ did include credits, ‘Fallen Angels’ did not). It does have a rather fulsome set of sleevenotes, penned by New Orleans-based novelist Tom Piazza and claiming the album as a piece of ‘extraordinary vocal musicianship’, ‘a recording for the ages, timeless and profound’. While sleevenotes have proliferated on Dylan’s Bootleg Series recordings, this is the first Dylan studio album to include such notes since the self-penned ones to ‘World Gone Wrong’ in 1993.

Bob Dylan has on his recent tours (the upcoming tour is unlikely to be different) placed this vintage cover material at the heart of his stage act. What started off with novelty value now risks becoming the norm: the future will decide whether this album and its two predecessors are or are not a significant addition to Bob Dylan’s career achievement. It is strange – though strangeness has long accompanied the twists and turns of Dylan’s career – that the artist’s Nobel consecration has not impelled him to compose new originals that might vie with the songs that won him the prize. Still, as Dylan wrote in 1968 of his outlaw character John Wesley Harding, ‘there was no man around who could track or chain him down’ …

‘TRANSLATED POE’ CITED IN NEW CAMBRIDGE COMPANION VOLUME

In 2014 I contributed a chapter on Mexican translations of the poems of Edgar Allan Poe to the collective volume ‘Translated Poe’. I am now pleased to find that both book and chapter have been cited, in a chapter by S.F. Fishkin of Stanford University, in a new addition to the established Cambridge Companion series, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature’. More on this, I hope, later!

Details of both:

S. F. Fishkin, ‘Unsettling American Literature, Rethinking Nation and Empire’, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature’, in Yogita Goyal (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017

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Christopher Rollason, ‘Return to El Dorado? Poe Translated in Mexico in the Twenty-First Century’, in Emron Esplin and Margarida Vale de Gato (eds.), ‘Translated Poe’, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Lehigh University Press / Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, pp. 321-328

(see entry on this blog for 29 October 2014 )

A ONE-WOMAN HOGWARTS? – RANSOM RIGGS, MISS PEREGRINE AND THE RETURN OF FANTASY

A mysterious residential school on Britain’s Celtic fringes, with a shape-changing head teacher and a clientele of children with magical gifts? You may think you have heard all that before, but any similarities to the world of Harry Potter have proven no deterrent to the success of the American Ransom Riggs’ ongoing ‘Miss Peregrine’ fantasy series. The first book of (so far) three, ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’, appeared in 2011, and the first film very recently in late 2016.

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-children

 

The idea of a small and beleaguered group of ‘peculiar’ children with preternatural abilities is not new: it reaches back not only to J.K. Rowling but also to a famous work of adult literature, Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’. Ransom Riggs’ exploration of the theme, however, is no mere copy: Miss Peregrine’s home and school are run by her alone, not by a fleet of wizarding teachers as at Rowling’s Hogwarts, and instead of Rowling’s Scotland or Rushdie’s India, the first book is located first in US suburbia and then on a remote island off the coast of Wales. Riggs also makes the original gesture of combining the magical theme with the science-fiction notion of a time warp.

In recent times we have had not only the Harry Potter books and films, but also the cinematic revival of earlier fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The fantasy genre, with its recurrent theme of the fight between good and evil, has become very much of our times, and, one may predict, is likely to remain so in the coming times too.

 

J.K. ROWLING, SHAPE-CHANGER: ‘FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM’ AND THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF GENRE

As the film ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, directed by David Yates with J.K. Rowling as producer and scriptwriter, becomes the cinematic sensation of the moment, it is worth stepping back to consider how, post-Harry Potter, Harry’s creator continues to enchant children and adults through multiple creative stratagems.

fantastic-beasts

The first Harry Potter book appeared in 1997, and the first film adaptation in 2001. The seventh and last book came out in 2007, and was split into two for the film version, thus prolonging the saga’s termination in that medium to 2011. The films marked the beginning of the author’s incursion into the world of cinema, as she had the last word on the scripts and featured as producer for the last two.

J.K. Rowling had effectively promised on more than one occasion that there would be no more Harry Potter books. The cycle had been conceived around the boy hero’s seven years as a pupil at Hogwarts, and once Harry had graduated, he was out there in the world of adult witches and wizards, and the Bildungsroman was complete.

In reality, however, and independently of her forays into adult fiction and pseudonymous detective novels, J.K. Rowling has used every possible strategy to keep her Potter-inspired creative vein alive.

We have had a good six mini-books, published both before and after the end of the series, which might be called lateral volumes, offering new details on the Potter world and with titles like ‘Quidditch Through the Ages’ and ‘Hogwarts: A Complete and Unreliable Guide’ – one of them being ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (2001), the alphabetically-arranged bestiary that served as jumping-off point for the film (and is attributed to Newt Scamander, its protagonist).

We have the official website, Pottermore, which among other things houses additional data on the Potter world and its inhabitants.

We have had the stage play ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, with its script co-written by Rowling with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany (both playwrights), which takes Hogwarts into the next generation and traces the misfortunes of Harry’s ‘difficult’ son Albus – and is thus a sequel to the seven books, but in a different medium.

Now in the cinema, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ not only marks Rowling’s debut as a film scriptwriter, but extends the world of magicking in the other direction, constituting a ‘prequel’ to the Potter books. At the same time, the film represents a much sharper break, since it is set well back in time  – the 1920s – when Harry, Ron and Hermione were neither conceived nor thought of. Newt Scamander is mentioned only in passing in the Potter books, and the film has only a very few references to familiar characters, notably Dumbledore. The film is also distanced in space from the earlier material, being set in New York (and we are told the sequel will shift to Paris).

The new film is an excellent start to a promised series of five. The fantastic beasts intrigue and entertain, and, even if the conventions of the wizarding world are familiar, there is a whole brand-new set of characters to get to know.

With lateral volumes, sequel and now prequel, and exploiting the media of theatre and film, Harry’s shape-changing creator is using every possible strategy to keep her magical creative vein alive, while leaving the autonomy of the Potter books intact. The world awaits the second ‘Fantastic Beasts’ film, due in 2018, and meanwhile we should expect more genre-shifting surprises to emerge as J.K Rowling strategically points her wand !

‘A Blaze of Light in Every Word’: requiem for Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

‘Let your mercy spill / On all these burning hearts in hell’

Leonard Cohen, ‘If It Be Your Will’ (1984)

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various-positions-cover

As I pen this tribute, I am listening to ‘First We Take Manhattan’, Leonard Cohen’s song from 1988 written in the voice of a demagogue plotting to stage a coup in New York’s heartland borough, at a dark moment when ‘everyone is wounded’. This may sound disturbingly premonitory – and the Zen-master songwriter has chosen to depart this life at the most difficult of historical moments for his native North America. In October of this cataclysmic year of 2016, the world of songwriting has now been convulsed by two epochal events, with Bob Dylan awarded the Literature Nobel, and Leonard Cohen leaving us.

It could appear invidious to press the comparison between the American Bob Dylan and the Canadian  Leonard Cohen too far. They are in many ways similar figures: both are still seen by some as 1960s icons; both are Jewish; both have turned in their time to other religious discourses, Buddhism for Cohen, Christianity for Dylan. Cohen remained with us long enough to witness Dylan’s Nobel and magnanimously congratulate him on it – as well as to release, just before his decease, his 14th and last studio album (Dylan has 37), the spellbinding ‘You Want it Darker’. Their trajectories have not been identical: Cohen entered the popular music arena from the milieux of literature, as an acclaimed poet and novelist before he had ever released a song; Dylan began as a musician and acquired a parallel life in literary circles thanks to the critical attention paid to his lyrics. Some may think Cohen would have deserved the Nobel more than Dylan, but history has decreed otherwise and it now behoves lovers of music and literature to accord their just value to both.

Leonard Cohen’s career witnessed diverse ups and downs before the consolidation of his fame that marked his later years. He entered on his musical avatar in 1966, when the iconic folk singer Judy Collins recorded what until then had been a words-on-the-page poem, ‘Suzanne’.

‘Suzanne’ subsequently became Cohen’s trademark song, his most popular and most covered – until in mid-career he found it replaced in that role by ‘Hallelujah’. To the former song’s ‘She’s touched your perfect body with her mind’ succeeded the latter’s’ ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word’.

However, success did not always drop into Cohen’s lap. His first two albums, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’ (1967) and ‘Songs From a Room’ (1969), established him with the late 60s / early 70s generation as a major voice, but by ‘Recent Songs’ (1979) he had sunk into obscurity. ‘Various Positions’ (1984) was not even officially released in the US (it was only available on Canadian import) – yet it now appears as a key album, containing two songs that would be consecrated as Cohen classics, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and, yes, ‘Hallelujah’. The following album, ‘I’m Your Man’ (1988), achieved a deserved success, and since then Cohen’s place in the musical firmament has been secure.

The quality of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting is beyond all doubt. Some songs are more complex or more accessible than others, and his treatment of themes such as authority, integrity, desire and salvation may be more or less oblique. The great majority of his recorded songs are original compositions, though some, like the French Resistance song ‘Le Partisan’ and Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’, are cover versions, and he has also interpreted poems by Lord Byron and Federico García Lorca.

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Now that the book of life has closed on Cohen’s work, if we are to evaluate his legacy I would like to lay a perhaps unorthodox claim and encourage his admirers to listen again to that neglected album from 1979, ‘Recent Songs’, which apart from dazzling musical arrangements ranging from Jewish violin to mariachi, contains, in ‘The Gypsy’s Wife’, ‘The Window’, ‘Ballad of the Absent Mare’ and more, some of his finest-ever songs. Indeed I would rate ‘Recent Songs’ even higher than ‘Various Positions’, and would put it forward  as quite simply his best album. Listen intently to that album, and you may feel the healing power of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, even now from beyond the grave!