Friday, 27 April 2012

London, Trieste, Duino

Arch of Riccardo, Trieste
Duino Castle, seen from the east
Entrance to Duino Castle

The second week of April, I left Cambridge and made a journey down to Trieste, in the extreme northeastern corner of Italy. It’s in the region known as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, just south of Slovenia and northwest of Croatia.  Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, a history that makes it noticeably different from other Italian cities, but also one that establishes a link with several large Hapsburg capitals elsewhere. There is a family resemblance between Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Trieste, seen primarily in the large scale of the public buildings, especially those flanking Piazza dell’Unitá, the main square. In more residential areas, houses and large common dwellings are often stuccoed and painted light colors—ochre, terracotta, tan, and what I call Maria Theresa yellow, the color used for Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and many other parts of Maria Theresa’s empire.
          My hotel was in the old medieval quarter not far from Piazza Unitá, a place of narrow twisting streets that gradually climb up to the Cattedrale di San Giusto, which overlooks Trieste.  This neighborhood was until recently a slum but has been renovated, at least partly. My first walk took me up toward the Cathedral, past a Roman arch known as the “Arco di Riccardo,” to which a later building was attached as if by super-glue. (The Roman name for the ancient city was Tergestum.)  Farther on, I reached the excavated Roman theatre, which sits there unperturbed a few yards from one of the city’s modern thoroughfares. You’d have no trouble imagining plays by Terence or Plautus being staged there. More like reverie than experience (and still more in retrospect) to stand there in the sprinkling rain and gaze at those wet stones.

Next morning cleared, and I took a bus out to the little town of Duino, roughly ten miles southwest of Trieste.  This was a local, not express bus, one that went up into the hills above the city, in the region known as the Karst (Italian, Il Carso), a vast stretch of limestone wilderness, where trees never grow tall, and farming is as hardscrabble as it gets. But little hamlets appear along the way, with semi-rural Italian life going on as one might expect. Eventually, the road moves back toward the coast and you arrive at the town of Duino. The Castle sits on a promontory, a little limestone spur of the Karst that thrusts out into the Bay of Duino in the Adriatic, about three hundred feet above the water.This is one of the castles belonging to the Czech branch of the Thurn und Taxis family.  A little more than a hundred years ago, Rilke became acquainted with Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe (her birth name is usually appended to the title). She was his hostess at the Castle and elsewhere, for which reason his Duino Elegies mention her as his patroness.  At some point I will have to write an introduction to my translation of the Elegies, and I was certain that seeing Duino Castle would give me some useful details for that.   

 The picture above shows the entrance. I decided to wander a bit in the park before going inside. To the right of the castle, there’s a small rectangular pool with central statuary—cherubs at play around a single spout of water.  Down from this, stone steps take you to a less formal part, and I could see winding paths under shade trees that probably go all the way down to the water. But the public isn’t admitted there. Box hedges, an early lilac, birds clattering in the trees. On the stone balustrade, at each landing, sculpted urns held limestone fruit in the familiar way.  Back up to the path to the “Belvedere,” my feet crunching on little pebbles.  You’re soon on the side of the Castle that fronts the sea, where you find a small terrace with stone balustrade.  Absolutely rapturous vistas out onto the Bay of Duino; and to the west, the Rocca, where ruins of the older castle stand—a few walls and arches, nothing more.  Cypresses and other trees thickly planted.  Water a color somewhere between jade and bottle glass.  Greyish-white cliffs, the last outpost of the Karst.  A stone table is protected from visitors by a chain and four steel poles, with a sign saying that the Duino Elegies were written here.   But if I’m not mistaken the first inspiration came when RMR was walking down below, close to the water, on a day in late January 1912.  The bora (north wind) was blowing fiercely in his ears and the opening question of the sequence suddenly came to him.  I went over the opening in my mind, in German and in English, trying to change the noonday of April 12, 2012, into a lasting personal memory.  Above the terrace was the newer part of the Castle, finished in stucco and painted, again, in Maria Theresa yellow.
        I came into the Castle courtyard, paved in irregularly shaped stones, and then went up a few steps to enter the public rooms.  First, the dining room, which had a table set up as though dinner would in a few moments be served there.  The Torre e Tasso (Italian form of the family name) armorial china, Venetian glasses, two bulky silver candelabras, the table backed by a painted screen, with pictures of the obligatory parrot on it. The ceiling and walls had ornamental plaster, white against lemon yellow, the familiar rococo scagliola patterns.  Savonnerie carpet, seventeenth-c. Dutch still lifes at the center of the wall panels, their black backgrounds somewhat at odds with this light and airy room. On from there to the Salotto Verde, furnished much as you’d expect, with ancestral portraits on the walls, little glass-fronted cabinets holding fans and objets de virtú.  And then the Salotto Impero, where it’s believed Emperor Leopold of Austria signed over the Castle to the Thurn und Taxis family.  Walls painted a red-clay color, with more portraits and vitrines containing family memorabilia.  On to the bedroom of the Principessa, modest enough with its single bed sans canopy.  But lovely views out to to the sea and sunlight.  This connected to an enfilade, the first side room being a handsome library, not to be entered, but allowing you to see the shelves and their morocco-bound contents, plus a few volumes out for display.  These included Marie von T. and T.’s children’s book, The Tea Party of Mrs. Moon, for which RMR provided, at her request, a tepid comment. (He had his integrity: In one instance he refused a prestigious prize, attached to money, offered by the Austrian government.)  Several other rooms along the way, all containing rare old instruments the family collected.  Further  memorabilia, for example, a telegram from Eleonora Duse, with only the words “Duino! Duino! Duino!”  The envelope of a letter addressed by RMR to the Principessa Marie.  A photocopy of the first page of the First Elegy in RMR’s handwriting.  Several photographs of the poet that Princess Marie called “Il Serafico,” referring obviously to RMR’s angels.  You climb up to the next levels in the dwelling by means of an elliptical spiral staircase, the stone steps jutting out without any support except the cantilver of their attachment in the wall. A wrought iron balustrade protected mounters from falling, and as they climbed their hand would rest on a rail covered in red velvet, with intermittent brass finials at each turning.  Looking up or down, you get the chambered-nautilus effect of the winding stair as it moves through several levels.  Not bad for the country seat of provincial nobles who weren’t all that rich. To complete my tour I climbed the family’s eponymous tower, an old square structure entered through the courtyard.  The view of the Adriatic, the town, and the Karst hills northward is indescribable so I won’t make an attempt.

Seeing Duino was the main purpose of the visit, but there was also Trieste itself that deserved exploration. In the following days, I found notable sites for James Joyce, for Italo Svevo, and for Umberto Saba, all writers associated with the city.  Joyce’s brief prose work Giacomo Joyce is set in Trieste, the only work of his to use a non-Dublin setting.  But the city is essential and pervasive in the work of Saba and Svevo, and the latter was Joyce’s closest friend during his Trieste years. I’m sure there’s a PhD. thesis there if it hasn’t already been done.
      As a coda, I will mention visiting the tomb of J.J. Winckelmann, erected in the lapidary garden adjoining the city’s antiquities museum.  A German by birth, Winckelmann became one of the most prominent classical scholars of his era, a pioneer in the study of Greek sculpture.  His classical education was furthered by long residence in Italy, where he could study original manuscripts and works of art.  Not coincidentally he took a classical view of homosexuality, based on Greek and Roman texts and his own orientation. That was one factor that must have prompted the essay Pater wrote about him in The Renaissance.  He died in Trieste in 1833, and his monument has been a local attraction since that time.       

Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Cambridge, London, Grantchester

Clock tower, Trinity College
Since last writing I’ve continued with the Rilke translation project and have drafts of four of the elegies now. Of course the final version will have to wait until I’ve done the whole series, after which I’ll go through all of the Elegies again, to make adjustments.  Translation is not easy.  However, don’t assume I never leave my study. I do, either for events in Cambridge or to go to London. Most recently I went down to participate in the launch of issue 26 of The Wolf magazine, which has a poem of mine in it.  I went into town early and caught the matinee of the National Theatre’s new production of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, which I’d never seen staged.  Some of the acting was too broad or sit-comish, but there was plenty to like in the piece. 

The launch was held at The Poetry Place in Covent Garden, with James Byrne hosting the evening.  The readers were, in order, Sophie Meyer, Michael McKim, Helen Moore, Ruth Padel, Giles Goodland, and myself.  Lots of people came and there were some excellent readings. I always enjoy performing for The Wolf because the audience is so expert, you don’t have to do a lot of explaining.  It happened that Marilyn Hacker was in town that day to judge a prize, so she came to the event and then joined us after for dinner.  It had been a while since we’d seen each other, so there was a good bit of catching up to do. She is prospering, making plans to go to Turkey with a group of American poets and then to Tripoli for the first Libyan international literature festival, organized by Khaled Mattawa.

To continue the international theme, I will mention that I’ve become acquainted with a poet from China named Iok Foung Lin. She is a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall this year and in fact is my next-door neighbor.  Iok Foung is from Macau, a city with an interesting history and, like Hong Kong, was recently placed under the Chinese sovereignty.  She has published three books of poems, and is working on a history project while at Clare Hall. We’ve had some good conversations about our respective nationalities, and I was reminded again how much easier it is for poets from different countries to be friendly than for the countries themselves.

Another Visiting Fellow I’ve spent time with is Thomas Glave, a fiction-writer and essayist who teaches at SUNY Binghamton.  After having several conversations in the dining hall over the past month, we made a plan to walk to Grantchester, a village about five miles south of Cambridge.  Cambridge has had glorious spring weather here this year, with daffodils, cherry blossom, and all sorts of flowering shrubs.  So the walk across Grantchester Meadows, with the slow-moving Granta flowing through them, was lovely.  Once arrived at Grantchester, we found the Old Vicarage, where Rupert Brooke was a lodger for a couple of years. A commemorative bronze statue of him stands in front of the house, currently owned by the novelist Jeffrey Archer.  Not far away is The Orchard, a place where you can have tea and, if the weather is fine as it was that day, have it outside.  Exactly what we did, with a view of flowering trees and a stretch of countryside. The Orchard distributes a little brochure recounting the history of how the place came to be what it is and informs you that earlier customers have included most of the Bloomsbury set, not to mention Brooke’s “Neo-Pagan” friends.  Through half-closed eyes you could look around and half imagine you’d been transported back to those days. To feed the illusion, I’ll add a few lines from Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” which was written during a fit of homesickness in a Berlin café where RB was at the time, almost exactly one hundred years ago:

I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . 

On the grass at the Orchard, Grantchester