Interview: Celia Hawkesworth

To visit Celia Hawkesworth, I took a Chiltern Lines train from London’s Marylebone Station to a village next to hers known, it turned out, for its outdoors shopping mall in the guise of ye olde main street. The train had announcements in Arabic and Chinese – something I haven’t seen anywhere else in England – and this hybrid of the rural with the global served as our conversation starter. How amazing that the diverse London youth and entire families would travel to Oxfordshire for brand-name shopping.

The moment we sat under the awning of one of the cafes (or was it an Itsu?), it started raining, but we soldiered on. I was finally meeting the legendary translator of Serbo-Croatian (today: Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian – etc.) and no amount of accompanying English drizzle was going to spoil the main event.

Between 1971 and 2002, Hawkesworth taught Serbian and Croatian in the Department of East European Languages and Culture at London’s largest university, the UCL. She translated about 40 books from South Slav authors into English – 39 as of last count, a number that’s likely to grow – and published several books of her own writing.

Celia Hawkesworth

CH: I’m currently translating a US-based Bosnian writer, Semezdin Mehmedinović. He wrote this beautiful memoir in three parts. One part is about when he had a heart attack, then the middle piece is when he’s travelling with his son who’s a photographer, and the third bit is about his wife who had a stroke and clearly eventually dies, although he doesn’t take you there. I’ve translated it for Granta; it’s coming out next year. The editor said to me Oh, I knew it was long but didn’t know it was that long. But I’m going to do it because it’s astounding.

It’s totally unsentimental. From time to time very funny. Beautiful. Tender, understated.

LP: Well thanks to you and various small English-language publishers, I’ve discovered a lot of Balkan writers I had no clue about. Like, Nenad Veličković…

I don’t want you to ask me too many questions about contemporary scene, because as I said earlier, I’m in my village now. What I like about my current situation is, in the old days, when I was working at the University of London I used to come across things and say to myself, This is wonderful – I’d translate a bit, then send it around to various publishers who would then say Yes interesting, but not saleable. And that went on for years. So I stopped doing that. I just do my own things now and check email and there’ll be a message saying Would you be interested in doing this? And I say, Oh yes. When I was working in London and was constantly in touch with new things, but now I’m really terribly out of touch.

You did mention Nenad Veličković and I have liked his work in the past – especially Konačari. I discovered him when I was going fairly regularly [to the region] for work. I had this lovely friend who taught history of literature in Sarajevo who was Nenad’s friend. I think that’s how that happened.

You translated a lot of Dubravka Ugrešić and Daša Drndić. How did you come across each woman, do you remember?

I kept meeting Dubravka at various events in the country, particularly in Zagreb, so she’d be at any given literary gathering. She was tremendous; I really loved my association with her. I love her work, that was a real privilege to be able to do that.

I had heard about Daša for a long time. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Jasna Lukić? [I had, turns out; she used to teach in the Women’s Studies Centre in Belgrade when I attended, 1997-98. – LP] She’s from Belgrade but lives in Budapest. She was married to a Croatian critic and they have a son and a daughter. She said to me, there is one person you really ought to translate and really ought to read. She had spotted her ages ago. And then MacLehose Press came to me. I have to say, that was quite frightening because Daša had this reputation of being very scary. And I knew that she had not liked…

OMG, yes, she had ~words~ about her first big English translation, Trieste. I listened to the podcast that Susan Curtis of Istros recorded with her.

It was not entirely fair…

Not exactly diplomatic…

You could say that. Which is good, because she cuts through everything. But anyway, I was really quite frightened. She insisted on a sample of 30 pages first. In the event, most of it was alright. And because her English was so fabulous, it was a real joy to work with her; she knew exactly the nuance she wanted.

I was reading EEG in the original, and thinking, who on earth can translate this. So many localisms, so many things only understood in the region… Then I looked at your translation and thought, Yes, this is basically the same thing. How is this possible? You got the texture of it just right.

Grreat, I’m delighted.

My great love, which you might have noticed, is Ivo Andrić. It’s completely fanciful, but I imagine I understand his way of thinking. Of course I don’t. But I really appreciate that irony, and the tolerance and the compassion that I find in his work and it totally lies with me. Whereas Dubravka and Daša are completely different personalities from me. So you have to work at it … your way into their head.

That’s so interesting. But you found Andrić simpatico.

Ivo Andric in 1961. Photo by Stevan Kragujevic

Totally, a real sort of soulmate. It’s ridiculous to say but that’s how I feel. So I was thrilled when the NYRB asked me to do Omer Paša Latas.

There was this article about his entire work in the NYRB magazine recently…

… a really good article about his historical fiction, yes.

 And today Bosniaks don’t really claim him because of the alleged pro-Serbian point of view… For the Serbs and the Croats he was probably too much of a Yugoslav… I wonder who can take pride in him today.

I was invited last year, because I’d just finished Omer Paša, to some Andrić event in Višegrad. And I just can’t imagine going there now that it’s not what it was [it is now a town in a highly Serbianized Republika Srpska, one of the three ethnic enclaves that form post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina – added by LP]. They’ve built something called Andrićgrad. I just couldn’t face it. I was terribly busy.

They can’t have him, as far as I’m concerned.

And I suspect he wouldn’t let himself be had by the nationalists, if he was still around. I’m glad the NYRB piece covers the basics, because I’d forgotten that he essentially went into an inner exile when the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia – he didn’t join the resistance exactly, but did not take part in any form of public life.

That’s when he wrote his novels. Because he was sitting in his flat in Belgrade and wouldn’t publish anything. He was really much more at home in short stories. Na Drini ćuprija is really a series of short stories – wonderfully linked – but Travnička hronika looks much more like a novel. He might never have written novels had he not been in that kind of enforced silence.

A lot of intellectuals just hunkered down when their countries fell under Nazi occupation. Inner exile. Sartre and Beauvoir essentially did the same, taught in provincial schools… But the Yugoslavs had to go all out.

I still can’t really accept it… the end of it.

What do you think of this. This has been bugging me. Our newly created countries now have all kinds of issues with corruption and weak civil society etc. That all unfortunately I think started during communism. It exploded exponentially after it, but communism started it. Though we like to remember it fondly now. And I think Daša did that a little too. Slightly idealized the previous system. But arbitrary rules, nepotism – it was all there already.

Yes. Definitely the country had become corrupt.  One of my favourite vignettes is a friend who has taught English, he’s in his eighties now, Damir Kalogjera at University of Zagreb, he said after the war, I used to sit in faculty meetings with all these communists around me, thinking oh god, they are idiots. And then suddenly after the war they were all nationalists. And I thought: No, I’m the idiot.

II

Any idea why there are so many great Croatian women writers? No other republic has that many.

No, that’s true.

I remember there being a lot of great Croatian non-fiction writers and journalists back in the late eighties, early nineties… people like Slavenka Drakulić…

(whispers) I don’t enjoy her work.

Interesting! I adored her early writing and her journalism, but her writing in English – I don’t recognize it at all.

I liked the first book, about her dialysis. That was very touching. And well written. But a publisher sent me something that was done two or three years ago… it was potentially interesting. I’m afraid it just didn’t come off.

Ah. That’s how I feel about her writing in English. The Balkan Express for ex? So slight. And so obviously written for Americans.

But back to Dubravka, who’s an example of a Croatian female writer you have in mind…

Was it you who translated Forsiranje romana reke, I can’t remember?

No that was Michael Henry Heim, her good friend and ours. And I thought his Fording the Stream of Consciousness was very clever. I did Museum of Unconditional Surrender. Museum I thought was really good. But she did become bitter, and I think that spoiled the next one, the novel about a teacher of Croatian in Amsterdam… just very bitter and negative. She had a hard time, learning Dutch seems to be really difficult. It was hard for her to be accepted. So she was always with the exiles. Things may have changed since then, though.

But your question was why are there so many women. I spend quite a lot of time trying to find women writers.

See, I suspected as much. I’m glad.

Really liked Svetlana Velmar Janković, for example.

What should I read?

 Lagum. I translated it long time ago, and called it Dungeon.

You also translated Olja Savićević Ivančević for Istros. She was a huge discovery for me.

Absolutely. She’s a delight in every way – and extremely sharp. And perceptive.

Olja Savicevic

And political. Nevertheless her touch is very light.

Comic, even. Farewell, Cowboy is comic, but under the surface kind of depressed.

The new one is very strange, Singer in the Night. It’s a very strange genre; she’s playing with genre, you don’t know where you are at the end.

Then there’s Vedrana Rudan, who’s extremely popular in Croatia, whom you’ve also translated.

[pause] I know. But somebody asked me to.

Ha, but such writers need to exist, I suppose. Punk, angry writers.

I suppose so. I did put together this book called The History of Central European Women’s Writing. I went hunting. [CH actually put together two books on the topic: that one, and this one – LP]

The thing about Croatia within Yugoslavia is, they had feminism. They had feminist publications and writers in late eighties.

They’d had it before. This is what I found when I was doing my history. They had had it between the wars. It’s just that after the Second World War when male communists took over, they just denied it. So they had to start all over again in 1970s. There’ve had some very interesting people in between the wars – women. You wouldn’t know this.

I did not know this! In the time of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes?

Yes. And not only in Croatia.

Ah. But then communism came and everybody became equal.

And yet men were still running things.

Zagreb had feminist press in 1980s, I guess that’s how long it took to reignite the fight. A magazine called Svijet, which changed my young life. Now all that is gone. Now they have a female president who’s very right wing. Do you go to Croatia now, do you go to any of the republics?

Very little. We have just a few old friends left. Damir Kalogjera in Zagreb and the Lešić family in Sarajevo. The Lešić family include our goddaughter who now has her own daughter. Zdenko Lešić and his wife were living on the 7th floor in Sarajevo with no glass in the windows. They could see people blown apart in front of them – unimaginable. Then their daughter went to Belgrade to study and they couldn’t really see her. His two brothers lived in Ilidza, one of them was killed by his next door neighbour. In the house they found the glasses. The neighbour came for a visit, they had their drinks together, and then he shot him. The other brother took his Muslim wife – they were Croatian and living in the wrong place, the Serbian part of Bosnia – he took his wife to Novi Sad, and then promptly had a heart attack and died. So Zdenko has not seen either on time to say goodbye. It was one thing after another, absolutely dreadful. They had decided they couldn’t get through another winter, that even death was better… I got my boss in London to say we could do a job share if he could get out and we knew somebody at British Council who helped. Anyway because he’d known all those dreadful people like Nikola Koljević who were all in charge of things, he could get out and they did. They came to London and Andrea came and that was wonderful.

And then they moved back after war and were very much welcome because they hadn’t sided with anyone, she’s Serbian, and he’s Croatian. Thoroughly decent human beings. He died last year sadly, in his eighties. But Andrea and Kaća, her mother, are still there.  They go to Mljet in the summer so our plan is to go there. My husband and I went secretly for her eightieth birthday, just appeared in Sarajevo.

That’s about it. I really don’t go very much because I just don’t know enough people in Belgrade any more. A lot of people I knew either left or they turned out to be people I didn’t understand at all. They had this nationalist button you could push, which it seemed incredibly easy to do.

Were you ever interested in people like Pekić or Crnjanski?

Both of them, yes. Pekić of course was in London so I knew him.

His wife worked as an architect. I’m not sure if he ever worked in England.

And they had a lovely daughter. He was a most interesting writer. I really didn’t like Besnilo – but all his other writing much more than that novel. Crnjanski, I love the early work, but once he came to London he became a bitter emigré… Roman o Londonu is unreadable, I think.

Seobe is absolutely worth reading.

Yes! Though there’s no point in trying to transfer it to English.

Somebody already did.

That’s right, but I don’t see how it could possibly work. I mean, the dismal thing about translating stuff from smaller languages is: the books just vanish. If you’re very lucky, they are published and then gone. People don’t read them. It hasn’t approved a bit – well, it’s improved a dot, people are more prone to read translations, but most people still don’t. And there are very few people to promote them. Exceptions are few, like the amazing Irish critic Eileen Battersby who did a huge amount to promote Daša – it’s such a tragedy that she’s gone.

All the time, when I was trying to translate, all those years when I was working in London, I was just acutely aware when in Yugoslavia that these writers are enormously important. They could not understand why that wasn’t carried over when they were translated. I mean – Kiš. Anybody should know Kiš.

He’s barely read now.

He was barely read in English when he was alive and very vigorous.

Have you read Mark Thompson’s Kiš biography, Birth Certificate? What an extraordinary book. And finally some Montenegro content. We’re the smallest and very few people have the faintest about Montenegro.

I’ve read it, I agree. Mark is a great guy. We had dinner with him and his Croatian wife recently, and Kiš’s widow Pascale Delpech. I used to see his first wife in Belgrade from time to time, Mirjana Miočinović.

Birth Certificate suggests that he was kind of veering between those two women till the very end. Fascinating guy, but tricky.

Weren’t they all?

Yes, what is with the Balkan macho…

No, women too. Daša was tricky. There were tricky women too.

Ha! Well, if you had asked Daša, she’d probably not have called herself a feminist. And if you look at the writers she invites into her own fiction, it’s mostly Mitteleuropa men.

She certainly lived life of a feminist.

Absolutely.
I’ve been trying to interest a Canadian translator in her book
Dying in Toronto, but no luck. It’s a bit older, from 1990s, and also it’s not very flattering to the host country. They really struggled in Canada.

She was not happy in Toronto.

Oxfordshire, October 2019

Onegin!

So the Carsen Onegin is twenty years young and just opened the COC’s 18/19 season. My review is up on Opera Canada.

I’ve been going through some recordings in preparation and in the process discovered a glorious 1955 mono from the Bolshoi with Galina Vishnyevskaya. This chorus gets me every time, but this rendition in particular:

Loved that Carsen introduced an Orthodox priest into the scene — there are indeed shades of Orthodox chanting in this chorus, and it all went beautifully together with the autumn leaves strewn across the stage, the peasants coming back from the harvest, the women peeling fruit and veg and kibitzing.

There are brilliant moments in every scene in this Carsen, and I thought there is a touch of genius in how Lensky’s death is bridged with the next scene, the famous polonaise at the Prince Gremin’s ball.

Anybody seen any other Onegin productions, live or on video? There are bits of Kasper Holten’s ROH Onegin on the internet, and various Bolshoi clips of varying vintage. I can’t remember which director turned it into the Onegin & Lensky forbidden love type story? There’s been at least one of those about.

L’Histoire de la soldate

Suzanne Roberts Smith and Jonathan Crow in L’Histoire du soldat directed by Alaina Viau for the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Photographer James Ireland.

By casting a woman in the title role in Stravinsky’s kind-of staged L’Histoire du soldat performed last night at Koerner Hall in the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Alaina Viau effectively rescued this rather thin story from the fate of being but a curious Russian folkloric riff on Faustian bargaining. The text, based on a story by Aleksandr Afanasjev, involves a returning soldier striking a bargain with the devil and losing everything in exchange for the magic ability to create wealth with the help of, um, a magic book. He eventually saves an ailing yet dancing princess (dancer and choreographer Jennifer Nichols) but by the end loses her again by disobeying the devil’s injunction never to leave the confines of the palace? It’s a tale alternating between confusing and tedious, with not enough Stravinsky’s music to make it all worthwhile. It is a piece in need of directorial intervention.

We did get that in one respect: the Soldier-Princess storyline is livened up with the woman + woman casting; the travails and tribulations of a wandering soldier, and the obstacles to charming a princess, are a very different game when a female principal is involved. Suzanne Roberts Smith, give or take a spot of goofy miming of fiddle playing, was a credible and handsome soldier, sometimes clueless, sometimes foolhardy, always engaging. Jennifer Nichols was appropriately enigmatic and distant as the Princess on pointe.

The Narrator and the Devil on the other hand were merged into one, which didn’t work as well. L’Histoire is often performed with one person taking on all the roles, but once you begin to distinguish the characters, there is no reason to leave any two merged. The fact that Derek Boyes (who performed in L’Histoire many times before) read his words from the script wasn’t ideal either. It felt like some parts of the production were staged and others not.

More work could have been done in the visual side of story-telling. The lighting and the video remained modest; I am not of course expecting the William Kentridge scale, but a stronger presence of the visuals would have considerably improved things, which remained under-defined, as if grappling towards an idea. On the upside, Viau did give bits of stage business to the orchestra, the TSO Chamber Soloists with TSMF’s AD Jonathan Crow on the violin.

The Soldat was preceded by a concert performance of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Scored for more instruments than the Stravinsky piece, Spring brought to the stage some of the TSMF Academy Chamber Music fellows. There are parts of stunning lyricism in Spring that otherwise sounds very familiarly American, with citations from folk and dance, and an overall upbeat-ness.

At the opposite end of that, and at opposite end of the night, there was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at 10:30pm, billed as the TSMF Late Night Encore. The hall was emptied to one third of occupied seats when Jonathan Crow, Julie Albers (cello), Miles Jaques (clarinet) and Natasha Paremski (piano) came out and dug into the first movement, ‘Liturgie de cristal’. As one movement followed the other, the narrow vertical screen showed video, mostly abstract shapes changing ever so slightly. For the movement with clarinet solo, the lights went down in the house and the only things remaining lit were musicians’ stands.

Good ideas, but not enough of them, and executed modestly.

Messiaen’s war camp quartet is a tricky choice for a late night performance. It has long stretches of mournful and/or monotonous sound-making: a long violin line sul ponticello that varies in intensity and stretches eeeever so slowly to its extinction, is just one example. There was not much demanding our attention from the stage (except when trying to fend off the idea this video art looks too much like a screensaver I used to have…) and as we were pushing past 11pm, there was quite bit of nodding off all around me. Again, more directing wouldn’t have gone amiss – more doing stuff with the lights, both house lights and stage lighting. Still, there was something pleasantly taboo-breaking about a late night concert. It had a less formal atmosphere perhaps, and breaking the house lights rules contributed to that.

TSMF continues apace. There is a Russo-German chamber program tonight, and on Saturday it’s back to reGeneration, the final round.

IMG_20180719_233623[1]
A quick snapshot at the end of the Quartet for the End of Time: l-r Natasha Paremski, Julie Albers, Miles Jaques and Jonathan Crow

Nightingale, oh Nightingale

(l-r) Bruno Roy as Japanese Envoy 3, Samuel Chan as Japanese Envoy 2, Jane Archibald as the Nightingale, Oleg Tsibulko as the Emperor and Miles Mykkanen as Japanese Envoy 1 in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, set designer Carl Fillion, costume designer Mara Gottler and lighting designer Etienne Boucher. Photo: Michael Cooper

The COC’s nine-year-old production of Stravinsky’s shorts, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables directed by Robert Lepage has aged well — as family entertainment. It sells well, it brings children and rookies to the opera house, and this time around it put to work much of the COC Ensemble Studio.

For those of us who have seen it when it opened, the excitement has subsided. The production stitches together a selection of Stravinsky songs and instrumental pieces with the short opera The Nightingale into a puppetry-themed revue. While the children may rejoice the shadow puppetry illustrations during Pribaoutki and The Fox, the adults may wonder why this modernist composer is being given the Russian folklore treatment. In the pre-Nightingale pieces all the singers wear peasant clothes, and while this makes sense for Four Russian Peasant Songs (women of the COC Chorus, underpowered on the opening night), it does not for Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont (Danika Loren, bright-voiced and exquisite in Russian language) or Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (the very engaging Juan Olivares).

The Nightingale itself is a strange bird, and Stravinsky thought so too. He composed Acts 2 and 3 after he had completed The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, thanks to a commission he couldn’t refuse, and Act 1 does remain stylistically apart. The opening song of the Fisherman and some of the surrounding woodwinds could have come from the Russian nineteenth-century opera, whereas the rest of the work fits in better with the invention, the sharp edges, the crafted-ness of Stravinsky’s mature oeuvre.

The story is, fittingly, bizarre. In the libretto by Stepan Mitussov based on H.C. Andersen, the courtiers of the Chinese Emperor are taken out into the nature to hear the nightingale. The cow and the frog confuse them at first, as they’ve never heard any sounds from the nature, but the live nightingale is finally found and they invite it to court. The Emperor is moved when the bird sings at his quarters, yet the Japanese visitors interrupt the jam with their gift, a mechanical nightingale, which also impresses the Emperor. The real nightingale leaves unnoticed and is subsequently banned for disobedience but returns for Act 3 to negotiate the Emperor’s release from death throes. Morning dawns, Emperor is alive and well, Death chased away with song.

Parable on the supremacy of nature over artifice? Not so fast. The music Stravinsky gives to the Nightingale is a whole lot of beautiful but also rather cool and detached coloratura atop of the text describing wet foliage in the night. Yet to the stilted and ceremonious figures of the imperial court—and to Death—it sounds extraordinary, perhaps because free. Free from emoting too, as will operatic expression attempt to free itself from voicing and enticing straightforward emotion for much of the rest of the twentieth century to come, excepting Puccini. “For me, music is reality… and like Baudelaire, but unlike Messiaen, J’aime mieux une boîte à musique qu’un rossignol,” Stravinsky said in his Dialogues with Robert Craft (’82).

Robert Lepage and his collaborators in Ex machina intuited exactly right this artificial, laboured over and crafted nature of everything in this piece, and gave every character a puppet double to speak through – except, again, the Nightingale, whose mechanical double flies around as it pleases (on a long stick supported by a handler disguised in black). This is a perfect role for Jane Archibald who, when not holding the bird, roams freely among the characters and supplies self-contained coloratura utterances. Other principals are all in the pool of water occupying the orchestra pit, while the orchestra is on stage, behind the action. The original Dyagilev production designed by Alexandre Benois also played with upstairs-downstairs, and placed the Nightingale and the Fisherman inside the orchestra pit.

While he was barely heard in Part 1 as one of the quartet of The Fox, Oleg Tsibulko got back the volume by the time he returned on stage as the Emperor in Part 2. Lauren Eberwein as the Cook and Lindsay Ammann as Death in a large crowd of small roles had a bit more substance to work with and they managed to leave mark with what they had. Owen McCausland secure, full tenor was very distinct in Part 1 and returned in Part 2 as the Fisherman. He was comfortable in Russian, and vocally even throughout the range. Occasionally a bit more inflection and nuance was called for: there’s certainly sufficient force there, but there’s also a certain over-relying on the oomph of the voice, whereas sometimes modulation is what’s needed in the text or the scene. It will be interesting to watch his voice as it likely grows more dramatic with years.

The crown achievement of the evening is Stravinsky’s music itself, incapable of dullness if honoured properly, and the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus honoured its crispness and animation. From the Ragtime which served as the overture (and which could have been written yesterday, by John Adams) to the last bars of the rising sun of The Nightingale, the lucid and nimble orchestra kept the evening, potentially weighed down by dolls, gallons of water and crowds of courtiers, in swift and steady motion.

First published in Opera Canada online; will be in print in the next issue.