Friday, 25 September 2020


 On translating Nathalie Léger’s Exposition.

Exposition is the first in a triptych of books by Nathalie Léger that intertwines Léger’s mother’s story with that of a female artist or celebrity.

You could say that Exposition is about the Countess of Castiglione. Considered by many in Europe to be the most beautiful woman alive, Castiglione was probably the most photographed person of the nineteenth century. Born in 1837 in Florence, she was sent to Paris in 1855 to plead the cause of Italian unity at the French court, as an instrument of soft power, essentially. Unfortunately, she had terrible social skills, and it didn’t go well. She became the mistress of Napoleon III but overstepped her social position at the court and was soon asked to leave. Beginning in 1856, she had herself photographed hundreds of times at a high-end studio, spending her family fortune. She would often restage scenes from mythology but also moments of glory from her life at the French court. Some of her portraits were even presented in the International Exposition of 1867. As late as 1871, Castiglione was asked to intercede with Otto von Bismarck to discourage a German occupation of Paris. This point, the end of the Second Empire with which she was so identified, seems to mark the beginning of Castiglione’s decline, and she lived out her days in increasing isolation in her funereal Paris apartment until her death in 1899. However, she remained a legend in urban lore, granting viewings to her admirers and taking long nocturnal walks through a Paris that had changed around her.


Exposition is about the Countess of Castiglione, but it isn’t a biography. The genesis of the book was Léger’s attempt to curate an exhibition of photographs of Castiglione for a museum. Léger ran into some problems, the museum management didn’t share her enthusiasm for Castiglione, the exhibition never happened, and Exposition is her endeavor to come to terms with the difficulty of her subject. It’s also about Léger’s mother, and the way both she and Castiglione were unable to control their own fates. Léger’s writing often has a telescopic effect: one woman collapsing into the next; one woman’s life rendering certain facts of another’s visible. I think of it as a tool that allows her to broach big subjects that might be unwieldy with other methods. And so, shifting from one woman’s story to the next, Exposition becomes an interrogation of female self-representation and agency, but more than that, an exploration of what it means for a book to be about anything at all.

What is it to be captivated by a subject and to try to capture it? “For years,” Léger writes, “I had thought that to write you needed, at the very least, to master your subject. Many reviewers, famous writers, and critics have said that to write you have to know what you want to say. They repeat, hammering it home: you have to have something to say, about the world, about existence, about, about, about. I didn’t know then that the subject is precisely what masters you.”


When one submits to a subject, it is not necessarily a benign or unambiguous force. Castiglione is thorny, difficult to pin down and often unlikeable. Your average portrait subject can’t sink a museum exhibition; perhaps the more personal format of a book was better suited to the extremities of the project anyway. Ultimately it’s the power of Léger’s obsession that drives the story. We know that obsession is a corrosive force, a vampire, a thing with hooked claws. But obsession also preserves. Obsession communicates, reinforces—translates. And as the translator of Exposition, Léger’s alchemy of obsession and repulsion, submission and mastery is precisely what I had to convey.

Other people’s obsessions are always a dangerous thing to become involved with, and no one knows this better than the translator. Every job has its dangers and its attractions, and sooner or later any translator develops her methods for inhabiting a mind that is not her own. For me, the best approach is usually to craft a careful distance from the material; if you want to gain perspective on a subject, you can’t be sitting on top of it. Before I began, I pored over portraits of Castiglione, read about her. In a rare books collection, I turned the brittle pages of an album dedicated to her, turned them with something like reverence, the album’s fragile spine resting in a book cradle. At some point, a woman came into focus: alluring, repugnant, everything I already knew she would be.

Léger isn’t the only person who has been fascinated by Castiglione; for over a century, she’s been an irresistible subject. The first person on the list must be Castiglione herself, who never would have gone to such prodigious lengths and expense to record her own image without the considerable force of self-obsession. And then there are the men. Besides her husband, Napoleon III, and her various other lovers, Castiglione was a gay icon in her lifetime. (This is a phenomenon that is much older than you might think: before Judy Garland, there was Castiglione and others like her.) So many of her images were well-preserved because the French dandy Robert de Montesquiou (who, besides being an Olympic bronze medalist in 1900, was Proust’s inspiration for Baron de Charlus) purchased as much of her estate as he could after her death, keeping together a trove of pictures and artifacts that would otherwise have been dispersed.

And so Léger is simply one of the most recent in a long line of people to be moved by Castiglione’s force of fascination. But Castiglione was never my obsession, nor even my subject.


I came to know Exposition not through an interest in Castiglione, but through an interest in Léger’s work. Like most American readers, I first encountered her Suite for Barbara Loden. As in Exposition, the eponymous filmmaker’s story is interwoven with that of Léger’s parents’ failed marriage (as the final book in the triptych, The White Dress, would do with the story of the performance artist Pippa Bacca). Reflections upon reflections, one woman’s life within another’s, and another’s, and another’s. That is, it was a formal question that hooked me, a way of telling a story against the grain. More than any book I’ve translated, Exposition made me wonder what, as the translator, is my subject. The question may seem either self-evident or nonsensical, but let’s follow Léger’s thinking and define “your subject” as “what masters you.” That is, what was it that obsessed me as a translator?

I know that it has something to do with immersion. What is it that I am immersing myself in? What is my material, what is it that makes up the world of the book? It’s tempting to say “language,” that’s a trope we hear enough. But words can be dead matter—what infuses them with living spirit? Instead, I would say that I am obsessed with, immersed in, the movements of a mind. For me, literature has always been a way of being close to other people. There is nothing more interesting than someone else’s perspective, and the sheer excess of a book’s hundreds of pages are the perfect opportunity to indulge my obsession in their obsessions. Not the content of those obsessions, exactly, but their form. It’s the way idea connects to language and gives it shape.

Exposition tracks the movements of an erudite, restless mind. Its fragmentary, probing style draws on a rich array of artistic and literary references, joining together the past and the present, the personal and the public, the abstract and the tangible in order to leap from one place to the next. What I love about it is that it is a book that is always in motion. It’s the same thing that makes it indefinable in terms of subject, outside of the relationality of the women whose stories it tells. What mastered me were gestures, movements, forms I would shape and reshape, returning again and again until they were right. If anything, by the time I’d finished translating it, Castiglione had ceded her position in my mind, nudged aside and balanced by the acute and personal pain of Léger’s family story. It’s a book that comes alive in the connection of its figures, the way that language comes alive when it connects with thought, giving shape to emotion, intuition, insight.

It’s unsurprising, when I flip back through my translation of Exposition, that Léger arrived at this conclusion before I did. There I find, written in my own words but more so hers, that to have a subject is to give something form, and that this is an act of tremendous concentration, of giving something shape in language:

It would be best to leave it at what the painters say on the subject: “I hold on to my motif,” Cézanne told Gasquet. Cézanne, clasping his hands. He drew them together slowly, joined them, gripped them, made them fuse together, merging the one into the other, Gasquet recounted. That’s what it is. “This is what you have to achieve. If I go too high or too low, it’s all ruined.” What is my motif? Something small, very small, what will be its gesture? I look at her face in Portrait with Lifted Veil from 1857, her eyes downcast, her mouth so weary, tight and thin, her air of mourning. This woman’s sadness is frightful, a sadness without emotion, true self-defeat, an inner collapse, desolation. Photography can create an image of it, but to make a motif of it, something more is required; one must use words to bring things together slowly, so to speak, join them, fuse them.


The English translation of Exposition will be published by Dorothy, a publishing project, this September.

Amanda DeMarco is a translator living in Berlin.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Thursday, 24 September 2020

At the ends of the earth

There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth. There’s not much traffic there, so the asphalt is free for roller-skating, and parents don’t have to worry about any bad guys roaming around. What business would a bad guy have on a dead-end street?

The apartment that we’re living in when I’m first old enough to go down to the street on my own is on the third floor of an elegant old building with elegantly crumbling plaster, bay windows, enormous double doors for an entrance, and a wooden staircase, the monstrous head at the end of the banister has been worn to a shine by countless hands. Flora Strasse 2A, Flora Strasse 2A, Flora Strasse 2A. The first words I learn after mama and papa are this street name and this house number. That way if I ever get lost I can always say where I belong. Flora Strasse 2A. Squatting in the stairwell of that building, I learn how to tie my shoes. Just around the corner, on Wollank Strasse, is the bakery where I’m allowed to go shopping by myself for the first time in my life, at age four or five, when my parents send me down with a shopping bag and the magic coins that they’ve counted out to buy rolls for breakfast. The bakery has hand-carved wooden shelves and a cash register where the cashier turns a crank before she puts the money in. A bell chimes when the drawer is opened. Wollank Strasse comes to an abrupt end a few hundred meters farther down, at a wall. That’s the end of the line for bus number 50. My parents don’t have to worry about any bad guys roaming around, what business would a bad guy have on a dead-end street? In those days, they send me down to the courtyard to play by myself in the sand, a large fir tree casts its shadow on the sandbox, and when dinner is ready my mother calls down to me from the window. There’s a dance school on the second floor of our building, from the courtyard you can hear the tinkling of the piano and the voice of the teacher instructing her students in the steps.

On the other side of the wall, past what I know as the end of Wollank Strasse, the elevated train goes by. It runs to the left and to the right, but neither of those directions is open to us. One station farther to the left, but on our own side of the wall, my grandmother lives together with her husband and my great-grandmother in a two-room apartment, in one of those Berlin tenements with one courtyard after another. To reach their apartment you have to go all the way to the third courtyard back from the street. The building is actually on a corner, and if you could enter from the other side, their apartment would be at the front. But since that side has been declared a part of the border strip, the passable part of the street comes to an abrupt end just shy of the corner, at a wall. In this neighborhood, where my grandmother and great-grandmother live in their tenement, it’s always winter. When I look at the snowflakes in the greenish glow of the streetlights, I feel dizzy, coal is hauled up from the cellar, the third courtyard is paved with concrete, and the ash cans in the courtyard are always surrounded by puddles or dingy reddish snow. Baths are taken only once a week in this household, since the bathwater has to be heated in a special furnace. The only ventilation for the bathroom comes from a tiny window that can be opened with a metal rod mounted above the toilet, a rod that I believe is infinitely long. It runs the entire length of the ventilation shaft, beginning in the bathroom and continuing across the top of the pantry (which is separated off from the kitchen) until it finally reaches that tiny window, which I never actually see. In the kitchen, there’s a big, round glass jug on the floor filled with fermenting grape juice that’s supposed to turn into wine, but sometimes it turns into vinegar. 


On the sideboard I see a canning jar full of the leeches that my grandmother has to apply to herself to prevent thrombosis. When I spoon out the pear compote for dessert, I look uneasily at the leeches and the lids of the jars. My grandmother doesn’t wash the dishes under running water, she uses two bowls that she pulls out of the kitchen table like drawers. In my great-grandmother’s bedroom, where I sleep too when I spend the night, a lacquered wooden clock with golden numbers ticks throughout my entire childhood. This room, which is never heated, is also where my great-grandmother stores her pepsin wine, and she keeps her knitting inside the compartment of the unused tiled stove. In that same compartment, alongside her knitting, she also lays the pins that she removes from her hair before going to bed, undoing her bun and letting her long, gray braid fall down her back. When I look from the bedroom or the living room down to the street, which isn’t a street anymore, I can watch the soldiers on patrol, or count the elevated trains that pass, running left and right. I see the strip of sand, the fluorescent lights, the snowflakes swirling in their green light, then the barricades, the watchtowers, and the wall, behind that the train tracks, behind the train tracks the garden plots, and behind the garden plots an enormous building with many windows, perhaps it’s a school, or a barracks. On Sundays, when I come to the tenement house where my grandmother lives with her husband and her mother, it always smells like roast pork, steamed potatoes, and cauliflower; it could be the roast pork, steamed potatoes, and cauliflower that my grandmother has prepared, but it could be from the neighbors. You never know.

Shortly before I start school, we move to Leipziger Strasse 47. A boxy pair of blue-and-white high-rises, ours is twenty-three stories tall, the one next door is twenty-six; these are the first buildings to be finished along the grand socialist avenue that leads to Potsdamer Platz, at least that’s how it would be described today. But during my childhood Leipziger Strasse doesn’t lead to Potsdamer Platz, instead it comes to an abrupt end just shy of Potsdamer Platz, at the point where the wall turns a corner. That means that the West is there to the left of our building, and the West is also there farther along, where the wall turns the corner, just past the end of the line for bus number 32. I learned about that on Wollank Strasse, in the Berlin neighborhood of Pankow. But there are other things that I didn’t learn in Pankow. 

In Leipziger Strasse, when we move in, there’s just the pair of buildings where we live, a supermarket, a school, and two apartment buildings that were seriously damaged in the war, nothing else. In Pankow, I learned to ride a bike in the public park, I fed ducks in the palace gardens, I dragged my feet through the autumn leaves when we went for Sunday strolls in the Schönholzer Heide. Now there’s nothing around us but mud. My walk to school leads through the mud of the giant construction site, my walk to the supermarket leads through the mud of the giant construction site, my walk to piano lessons leads through the mud of the giant construction site. In the mud, I find a twenty-mark bill, it’s green. If I hadn’t found that bill in the mud—a miracle!—I surely would have forgotten by now what a twenty-mark bill looked like back then. Our Sunday strolls take us down the smaller streets that branch off from Friedrich Strasse to the west, since that’s the only place with asphalt where I can roller-skate, the asphalt is bright gray and smooth, and we can walk down the middle of the street, since there isn’t any traffic there. What business would a driver have on a dead-end street?

The high-rises keep growing and filling up with people, including children who become my friends in school. When my friend in the building across from ours oversleeps, we see the one dark square in the seventh row of windows, between countless little bright squares, and we call to wake her up. The construction of socialism is always tied in my mind to this construction site where I live. To the left of our building is the high-rise that houses the Springer publishing company, but that’s on the other side of the wall, as if the wall were a mirror reflecting our evil twin back to us. And farther along, near the bend in the wall, roughly across from my schoolyard, the upper half of a building can be seen, its facade displaying not only two glowing cursive letters, BZ, but also a glowing clock. Throughout all of my years in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.

We live on the thirteenth floor. On the thirteenth floor, a child starts to wonder about certain things, for instance, if it would be possible to balance on the balcony railing. I decide against it, for reasons that I no longer remember, but it’s a close call. Sometimes, when I forget my key to the apartment and my mother isn’t home yet, I stand at the hallway window facing west, passing the time by counting the double-decker buses that come and go from the Springer high-rise. We don’t have double-decker buses in the East. From thirteen floors up, I have a good perspective. Depending on the time of day, the buses come every five or ten minutes. One day I set a record, I count twenty-six buses. At some point we move into a larger apartment, which means moving to the sixth floor. A high-rise that large is like a city unto itself, and changing apartments just means rolling up or down a few floors, from one space to another, hauling the furniture up or down in the elevator. Living on the sixth floor isn’t just an advantage from the standpoint of my survival, since the temptation of vertigo isn’t so strong, it’s also an advantage because when all three elevators are out of service, it doesn’t take so long to climb the stairs. Whenever I climb up or leap down the shallow steps of that stairwell with its smell of piss and dust, its walls painted a rusty red, I think of our geography teacher’s advice that in case of a nuclear attack we should take shelter in the stairwell near the banister. The nuclear attack never comes while I’m living on Leipziger Strasse, there’s only a small earthquake one night—we and many of our neighbors run down the rusty red stairwell with its smell of piss and dust, our sweaters pulled over our nightshirts, all the way down to the ground floor, where we stand outside the giant block that has spit us out, looking up at it with concern and considering the possibility that all twenty-three floors might fall on our heads, but that doesn’t happen either.

At the age of thirteen, a child starts to wonder about certain things. For instance, whether both people have to stick their tongues out when they French kiss, or just one person at a time. The ABCs of kissing are recorded on a scrap of paper that’s grown crumpled from repeated studying. My school friends and I always bring it with us when we venture into the ruins of the Deutscher Dom on the Gendarmenmarkt, where we discuss the hierarchy of kisses and test out our conclusions with a series of experiments: a kiss on the hand—respect; a kiss on the forehead—admiration; a kiss on the cheek—affection; a kiss on the mouth—love. In these ruins we always have the sky above us. In our dusty clothes we return home to our newly built apartments. As childhood gradually turns into something else, and Leipziger Strasse finally becomes a real street instead of a construction site, we move. 

My mother has seen enough of these blue-and-white boxes, we move into an old building on Reinhardt Strasse at Albrecht Strasse, diagonally across from the Deutsches Theater. Looking out the window of my childhood bedroom, I now enjoy a stunning view—across the lots that bombs left clear—of old Berlin apartment houses silhouetted against the sunset. The sun still sets in the West. At some point, Reinhardt Strasse comes to an abrupt end at a wall. A hundred meters from our house is the end of the line for bus number 78. Now that I know the ABCs of kissing by heart, a boyfriend takes me to the ruins on Museum Island. A birch tree is growing on the ground level. To get to the second floor, you have to climb the birch and then carefully cross over to the cracked marble floor. Up there, a white Venus stands in front of the burned-out windows of the gallery. There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth.

—Translated from the German by Kurt Beals


Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. Her previous books include The Old ChildThe Book of WordsVisitationThe End of Days, and Go, Went, Gone.

Kurt Beals is an associate professor in the department of Germanic languages and literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. He has previously translated books by Anja Utler, Regina Ullmann, and Reiner Stach.

From Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Kurt Beals. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

A medieval mother tries distance learning

Imagine you’re a mother, living in the ninth century, and your son is handed over to your husband’s political rival for “safe keeping.” You are miles away. There are no emails. You are living in what was once Charlemagne’s great empire, now being contested by his heirs. Even though you’re an aristocrat, you’re isolated. You do want to make sure your boy is growing up good, strong, devout, and, most importantly, respectful to his royal captors, who are punishing your husband for his disloyalty. You’re afraid for your son, body and soul. Also, you want him to remember you.

And as aristocrat, you have certain privileges most other women (peasants, really) of your time do not. Having survived the rigors of childbirth, you’ll likely live longer. Your clothes are finer, your diet heartier. In some cases, you wield political power behind the scenes and, when your husband is away at war, you are the face of the operation; all are answerable to you. (If you had been a queen consort, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, you would have ruled an empire.) You have some education. You can read, but perhaps you never learned to write, which meant at the time that you weren’t truly literate. Literacy is for clerks, but you have access to those.

Your son, William, is fifteen. His younger brother—your other son—was a baby when he, too, was taken away. You don’t know him. William is older and might listen, even from a distance. What do you write to him?

Before we go any further, there is something you should keep in mind. All medieval literature is derivative. That’s not to knock medieval literature. Not in the least. Originality is overrated. We fetishize it, but mainly because we can’t admit it doesn’t really exist. In the Middle Ages, they weren’t only not trying to be original, but originality was highly suspect. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you emulated the ancients. Aristotle for philosophy, Augustine for self-flagellating autobiography. When medieval writers committed their ideas to parchment, there were tried-and-true models they could follow. Didn’t matter what it was. Poetry or Biblical commentary or chronicles or rental accounts … and the rule certainly applied to advice literature.


That is what the duchess, Dhuoda of Uzés, decided to gift her son. The Liber Manualis is a handbook of her wisdom, one that he should read, internalize, and apply to his own young life to navigate the complicated feudal politics of the age. 

Though there are other such books in this genre, Dhuoda’s stands out. First of all, it’s rare that we have a book composed by a woman in this period. I’m a medieval historian, and speaking for the weirdos in my tribe, we cherish anything of this nature we can get. Second, its abundance (some might say overabundance) of maternal touches gives us a window into Dhuoda’s turbulent, emotional existence. Despite her relatively privileged life, things weren’t easy for her. We empathize with her, even though she seems a bit smothering. Though I’m Jewish and Dhuoda was devoutly Catholic, her advice sounds, on the whole, like it came straight out of my mother’s mouth. Or my aunt’s. If they lived in a castle and had nowhere to go.

We get a picture of Dhouda’s daily life in some small details she reveals. It’s clear that she’s lonely in Uzés, without her family. 

Her only companion is a female attendant. Her feeling of isolation was probably lessened, somewhat, by having a library—she talks to her son about looking through books and trying to find the right words to write. When the pandemic hit, I was reminded not only of Dhuoda’s isolation, but of her handbook, divided in eleven parts. It served as a kind of medieval lesson plan for distance learning. It’s not completely a one-to-one comparison—most parents now are at home with their children, rather than away from them—but her story hits so many familiar beats: learning outside classrooms, general gloom and doom, and, occasionally, glimmers of hope.

What got Dhouda into this pickle? In two words: the husband. He made bad (or, rather, unlucky) choices. But she doesn’t badmouth him to William. She’s careful, diplomatic. There’s frustration, but it simmers underneath. In this sense, ninth-century gender politics are still with us in 2020. In the end, she stands by her man.

Instead of Zoom, teachers in the Middle Ages had a feather off a bird and a sheet of parchment, and when the lesson came, it plopped down in front of you as a hundred-and-twenty-page Latin manuscript. And just what was a medieval mother’s education curriculum for her son?

Well, first and foremost, there’s lots of advice about loving God, praying to God, loving priests, praying with priests, loving your dad, praying for dad, and so on. That part’s nobody’s favorite. There are sections of her book that are laughably impossible for any son to follow, no matter how saintly he might have been (and William was certainly no saint): “I urge you to be a perfect man.” There is very practical advice for William’s tricky political situation, in which the young man (under pressure) had to swear fidelity to the future king Charles the Bald: “Accommodate yourself to greater and lesser men,” she counsels. “You are far from me, and so must continually take note of that yourself.” It’s when she goes off script, and gets less formal and more personal, that things start to get interesting.

She says to him if fornication “should tickle [his] heart” that he should fight it with chastity—after all, he will be irresistible to “harlot women.” And he will have to, she yells, “fend them off!” Reading this section from our perch in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to note how it is different from the advice given to young men today, where the focus on sexual abstinence is more imposed upon girls than boys. Dhuoda’s lesson also involved the medieval version of warning against “boys will be boys.” She told William that it wasn’t only bad women, but also his “lascivious companions” that could lead him astray. Dhuoda’s ideal was that William either keep his “body in a virgin state” or his chastity within the “bond of the marriage bed.” Though she must have known how difficult it would be for William to comply. To that end, she could only counsel, “Courage!”

Because this was a world without modern medicine, Dhuoda also had some choice advice for what William should do if he were to get sick (in short: pray). Dhuoda herself seemed to be frequently sick. And she, like so many of us in this quarantined world, was deep in debt. At the end of her little book, she tells William that she’s borrowed a lot of money, “not only from Christians but also from Jews.” (This was a world without banks.) If she should die, she asks that he should see that her debts are paid off like the good son she hopes he’ll be.

William did nothing of the sort. He eschewed all her good advice on being a good vassal to his lord and got himself killed during a rebellion against Charles seven years after receiving her book. So Dhuoda’s curriculum didn’t help William much, in the end. But maybe it helped me understand, here in 2020, with schools shuttered for the fall semester, that advice given at a great distance can only ever go so far.


Esther Liberman Cuenca is assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria. She has published in Urban History, EuropeNow, and Studies in Medievalism.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

What we aren’t seeing

 How appropriate that a museum show devoted to the unicorn—a mythical animal whose name has come to mean something so rare and elusive that it might or might not exist—should have failed to materialize. “A Blessing of Unicorns” was slated to bring the fifteenth-century unicorn tapestries from the Musée de Cluny in Paris together with their counterparts in the Cloisters at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a celebration honoring the Met’s one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. Scheduled for 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An exhibit of medieval art fell victim to plague, that most medieval of dangers.


The Met’s beautifully illustrated Summer 2020 bulletin, A Blessing of Unicorns: The Paris and Cloisters Tapestries, not only shows us what we missed but may make us rethink our view of unicorns—a subject that, to be honest, hadn’t crossed my mind in years. I used to think about unicorns a lot. In fact I lived with one, you could say: a reproduction of The Unicorn Rests in a Garden hung in my childhood bedroom. I used to stare at the dark fields so thickly covered with impossibly perfect flowers, and at the unicorn in its small round enclosure, so sweet, so melancholy, so lonely—so like the spirit of a preteen girl infused into the body of a white horse with a single corkscrew horn.

It came as something of a shock to see it again, as I looked through the Met minicatalogue and read the lucid informative essay by Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator at the Cloisters. And as I read, I saw something in the image I had never seen before. How could I not have noticed that the unicorn’s hide is streaked with blood, that thin rivulets of crimson trickle down the smooth white flesh as it rests so patiently in its circular enclosure? Some scholars have argued that the red streaks are pomegranate juice, the symbol of fertility, but it looks like blood to me, and it seems unlikely that the dog nibbling the unicorn’s back in The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden is dribbling red fruit nectar.

What would I have thought, as a child, if I’d known that this delicate, graceful creature was an animal to be hunted, like one of the endangered-species safari trophies so proudly displayed by Don Junior and Eric Trump? And what would I have concluded if I’d been told that this slaughter could not be accomplished without the willing assistance of an agreeable virgin?

Apparently, the unicorn was not only swift but strong, capable of killing an elephant with its horn. The hunters could not get near it on their own. That was why you needed the virgin. The unicorn liked to lay its head in a virgin’s lap, and, while it was distracted, the hunters closed in. The virgin was bait. In case the implications escape us and we miss the ramifications—the preciousness of female purity and the relative contamination of female sexuality—here is Richard de Fournival, the thirteenth-century chancellor of the Cathedral of Amiens and author of The Bestiary of Love:

I was captured also by smell … like the Unicorn which falls asleep in the sweet smell of maidenhood … no one dares to attack or ambush it except a young virgin. For when the unicorn senses a virgin by her smell, it kneels in front of her and gently humbles itself to be of service. Consequently, the clever hunters who know its nature place a maiden in its path, and it falls asleep in her lap. And then, when it is asleep the hunters, who have not the courage to pursue it while awake, come out and kill it.

When I stared at the picture, as a girl, was I being subliminally programmed for a future in which I would have to choose between the unicorn-friend and a sex life? What if we pretended to be virgins? The unicorn would smell it. And if we were virgins, what would be in it for us, delivering the lovely beast to its killers? By high school, my friends and I had begun to see virginity as a burden we were eager to be rid of; we were too innocent to understand how much about girlhood—its energy and spirit—was a pity to lose. And certainly I was too young to consider how the cult of the virgin—the fetishization of virginity—was a bad thing for women, freighted with punishments imposed by men, intended not for the protection of girls but primarily as a guarantee about the product that one was buying, selling, or bartering in marriage.

Much has been made of the unicorn as a symbol of Christ, a reading of these images that a medievalist friend supports; because of predestination, she says, the convoluted illogic of the Virgin being complicit in the murder of her son is beside the point. The unicorn’s wounds are the wounds of Jesus. Boehm is less convinced, and argues that the symbolic religious interpretation has been taken to extremes. But whether or not the unicorn represents (or reminds us of) Jesus, whether its blood is the blood of Christ, there’s no doubt that the hunters in the Cluny tapestries—coarse, rapacious, brutish, nasty—are dead ringers for the louts mocking Christ in the paintings of Bosch and Grunewald.


Though I could not help but mourn for my innocence lost, my preteen love of unicorns deflowered, I was grateful for the delightful unicorn factoids Boehm provides: The twelfth-century mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen believed that you could cure leprosy by mashing a unicorn liver with an egg yolk. Cesare Borgia dressed up as unicorn for his wedding in 1498. Julius Caesar wrote that the unicorns lived in the forests of Germany, while later German pilgrims spotted a unicorn in the vicinity of Mount Sinai.

Woven around 1500, each of the Cluny tapestries represents one of the senses (taste, smell, sight, et cetera) and depicts a relatively static scene (unicorn, lady) against a red background heavily stippled with small animals, tress, banners, and flowers. It’s astonishing that these enormous, highly detailed works of representative art were woven, though my amazement was somewhat muted by not seeing them in person.

The tapestries at the Cloisters are not only later (dating from around the beginning of the sixteenth century) but far more dynamic, realistic—and bloodier.


The name of the series, “The Unicorn Hunt,” is an instant tip off : this is not My Little Pony. And yet, in the first of the series, The Hunters Enter the Woods, things look amiable enough. The dogs don’t seem all that bloodthirsty; two of them look backward instead of ahead. The men wear funny hats, some with large plumes, and maybe those spears are just accessories that thirteenth-century men took on walks in the woods. Walking sticks with points.


A crowd has gathered in The Unicorn Purifies Water, and it’s all very Peaceable Kingdom; the unicorn is surrounded by a pack of real and mythical beasts, unsettling but unthreatening. The Unicorn Surrenders to the Maiden features only two humans—the (presumable) virgin and a hunter spying from the trees and blowing his horn, signaling the others. But now the dogs are worked up. One of them is either nuzzling or biting the unicorn, which remains calm, though now two streams of blood trickle down its back. The blood is as pretty—as aesthetic—as everything else.


It’s not until The Unicorn Defends Himself that the spears are raised. The dogs have gotten meaner, perhaps because one of them has been gored by the unicorn, whose blood has begun to flow.


The Hunters Return to the Castle is one of those medieval/Renaissance images that function like a film, showing us scenes that we can follow, sequentially, from one side of the image to the other. On the upper left, the unicorn is in agony, deeply pierced by three spears and beset by the dogs. And in the lower foreground, the dead unicorn—looking more like a slaughtered goat than a magical creature, its deflated carcass slung over the back of a handsome brown horse—has been brought for the approval of the regal lord and lady and their courtiers.

When I was in high school, often, in nice weather, my friends and I took the Fifth Avenue bus to the end of the line, Fort Tryon Park. We’d spend whole afternoons at the Cloisters. It was our European vacation, our cheaply available time travel. I don’t know how much time I spent in front of the unicorn tapestries, but I do know that, through all those hours, it never once occurred to me that I was looking at carnage.

Perhaps the cruelty and bloody-mindedness of this year has brought carnage into sharper focus. It’s unnerving, even embarrassing, but I always (or almost always) like having my eyes opened to something I didn’t notice, even though it was right in front of me all along. It wasn’t as if it had never occurred to me, how severely our society has been poisoned and deformed by racism and income inequality. But the events of this summer, the Black Lives Matter protests and the horrifying statistics that reveal how much more severely the poor and people of color have suffered from the pandemic have made it impossible not to see the blood. I used to say that our democracy was a fragile institution, that what happened to turn other democracies into dictatorships could easily happen here. But I don’t think I really believed it until recently.

However startling or painful the truth may be, seeing what we failed to notice feels like a continuing education, a lesson, even a gift. Like so many stories I thought I knew, like so many of the stories we tell ourselves and are told, the story of the unicorn is not what I’d thought. The beauty of these tapestries is thrilling, even in reproduction, but they do raise the question of how easily we can overlook the obvious, if we don’t look closely.


Francine Prose is the author of nineteen novels, eight works of nonfiction, three short-story collections, and one children’s book. Her most recent novel is Mister Monkey

(Source: The Paris Review)

Monday, 21 September 2020

What lies ahead?

 The following is taken from the introduction to Arundhati Roy’s Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction., which was published earlier this month by Haymarket Books.

While we were discussing the title of my latest book, my publisher in the United Kingdom, Simon Prosser, asked me what I thought of when I thought of Azadi. I surprised myself by answering, without a moment’s hesitation, “A novel.” Because a novel gives a writer the freedom to be as complicated as she wants—to move through worlds, languages, and time, through societies, communities, and politics. A novel can be endlessly complicated, layered, but that is not the same as being loose, baggy, or random. A novel, to me, is freedom with responsibility. Real, unfettered azadi—freedom. Some of the essays in Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. were written through the eyes of a novelist and the universe of her novels. Some of them are about how fiction joins the world and becomes the world. All were written between 2018 and 2020, two years that in India have felt like two hundred. In this time, as the coronavirus pandemic burns through us, our world is passing through a portal. We have journeyed to a place from which it looks unlikely that we can return, at least not without some kind of serious rupture with the past—social, political, economic, and ideological.

Coronavirus has brought with it another, more terrible understanding of azadi. The Free Virus that has made nonsense of international borders, incarcerated whole populations, and brought the modern world to a halt like nothing else ever could. It casts a different light on the lives we have lived so far. It forces us to question the values we have built modern societies on—what we have chosen to worship and what to cast aside. As we pass through this portal into another kind of world, we will have to ask ourselves what we want to take with us and what we will leave behind. We may not always have a choice—but not thinking about it will not be an option. And in order to think about it, we need an even deeper understanding of the world gone by, of the devastation we have caused to our planet and the deep injustice between fellow human beings that we have come to accept. Hopefully, some of these essays, written before the pandemic came upon us, will go some small way toward helping us negotiate the rupture. Or, if nothing else, a moment in history that was recorded by a writer, like a metaphorical runway before the aircraft we’re all in took off for an unknown destination. A matter of academic interest for future historians.


The first essay in Azadi is the W. G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation, which I delivered in the British Library in London in June 2018. Much of it is about how the messy partitioning of the language we knew as Hindustani into two separate languages with two separate scripts—now sadly and somewhat arbitrarily called Hindi and Urdu (in which erroneously Hindi is associated with Hindus and Urdu with Muslims)—presaged the current project of Hindu nationalism by more than a century.

Many of us hoped that 2018 would be the last year of the reign of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party. As the 2019 general election approached, polls showed Modi and his party’s popularity dropping dramatically. We knew this was a dangerous moment. Many of us anticipated a false-flag attack or even a war that would be sure to change the mood of the country. One of the essays—“Election Season in a Dangerous Democracy”—is, among other things, about this fear. We held our collective breath. In February 2019, weeks before the general election, the attack came. A suicide bomber blew himself up in Kashmir, killing forty security personnel. False flag or not, the timing was perfect. Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party swept back to power.

And now, only a year into his second term, through a series of horrifying moves, Modi has changed India beyond recognition. The infrastructure of fascism is staring us in the face, the pandemic is speeding up that process in unimaginable ways, and yet we hesitate to call it by its name.

I started to write this while U.S. president Donald Trump and his family were on an official visit to India in the last week of February 2020. So it, too, has had to pass through the rupture, the pandemic portal. The first case of coronavirus in India had been reported on January 30. Nobody, least of all the government, paid any attention. It had been more than two hundred days since the state of Jammu and Kashmir had been stripped of its special status and placed under an information siege, and more than two months since a new anti-Muslim, unconstitutional citizenship law had brought millions of protesters onto the streets of India. In a public speech to a crowd wearing Modi and Trump masks, Donald Trump informed Indians that they play cricket, celebrate Diwali, and make Bollywood films. We were grateful to learn that about ourselves. Between the lines he sold us MH-60 helicopters worth three billion dollars. Rarely has India publicly humiliated herself thus.

Not far from the Grand Presidential Suite of the Delhi hotel where Trump spent the night, and Hyderabad House, where he held trade talks with Modi, Delhi was burning. Armed Hindu vigilante mobs in northeast Delhi, backed by the police, attacked Muslims in working-class neighborhoods. Violence had been in the air for a while, with politicians belonging to the ruling party delivering open threats to Muslim women conducting peaceful sit-in protests against the new citizenship law. When the attack began, police were seen either standing aside or backing up the mob. Muslims fought back. Houses, shops, vehicles were burned. Many, including a policeman, were killed. Many more were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Horrifying videos flew around the internet. In one of them, grievously wounded young Muslim men, laid out on the street, some piled against each other by uniformed policemen, are being forced to sing the National Anthem. (Subsequently one of them, Faizan, died from having a policeman’s baton pushed down his throat.)

Trump made no comment on the horror swirling around him. Instead he conferred on Narendra Modi, the most divisive, hateful political figure in modern India, the title “Father of the Nation.” Until recently, this was Gandhi’s title. I am no fan of Gandhi, but surely, even he did not deserve this.

After Trump left, the violence went on for days. More than fifty people lost their lives. About three hundred were admitted into hospital with grievous wounds. Thousands of people moved into refugee camps. In Parliament, the home minister praised himself and the police. Members of the ruling party gave speeches to their smirking supporters in which they more or less blamed Muslims for provoking the violence, for attacking themselves, burning their own shops and homes, and throwing their own bodies into the open sewage canals that crisscross their neighborhood. Every effort was made by the ruling party, its social media trolls, and the electronic media it controls to portray the violence as a Hindu–Muslim “riot.” It was not a riot. It was an attempted pogrom against Muslims, led by an armed, fascist mob.

And while the dead bodies were still surfacing in the filth, Indian government officials held their first meeting about the virus. When Modi announced the nationwide lockdown on March 24, India spilled out her terrible secrets for all the world to see.

What lies ahead?

Reimagining the world. Only that.


Arundhati Roy studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives. She is the author of the novels The God of Small Things, for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. A collection of her essays from the past twenty years, My Seditious Heart, was recently published by Haymarket Books.

(Source: The Paris Review)