Amichai, or Lost in Translation

Excerpt from Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath

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Heads turned when Ted and Assia entered the Festival Hall on the opening night of the Festival. She was strikingly beautiful, resplendent in shimmering white satin, her skin glowing pale gold against the gown. Ted towered next to her, seeming immense against her delicacy, wearing his signature corduroy jacket, his hair unruly, looking every inch the romantic poet.

In keeping with the cosmopolitan theme of this star-studded occasion, Assia’s Semitic beauty was the perfect foil to English gentility. There were suppressed oohs and ahs, especially from some of the younger women. Assia moved with a haughty grace, ignoring stares, some of admiration, others mocking. Amongst the luminaries, Ted Hughes and Assia Gutmann reigned as the royal couple. To Assia, this night was a fulfilment of all her fantasies, enhanced by the bridal theme of her gown.

The visiting speakers included Pablo Neruda from Chile, Miroslav Holub from Czechoslovakia, and Allen Ginsberg from New York. For Ted and Assia the most important guest was Yehuda Amichai, from Israel. A leonine presence, Yehuda arrived escorting his young wife, Hannah. Assia had heard that he and Hannah had had a clandestine affair, and that Yehuda had left his wife for her. The knowledge gave her hope that she, too, would one day walk at Ted’s side as his true wife.

Ted had discovered Yehuda’s work when researching for his book of translations. Immediately the two became friends; Ted was full of admiration for the poet’s honesty and courage. Like Assia, Amichai had fled the Nazis in Germany, but unlike her, had made Israel his permanent home.

‘My wife grew up in Israel,’ Ted told Yehuda, by way of recommending Assia as the translator of Amichai’s poems. Assia knew Ted was trying to ingratiate himself with the great poet, who’d become like a touchstone of genius for him. Still, a small thrill of pleasure went through her, hearing Ted say the words ‘my wife.’ And to think he trusted her, Assia, with the translations.

‘We’ll work on Yehuda’s poems together,’ Ted said later, although he knew not a word of Hebrew. ‘You’ll do the technical part, finding the roughly equivalent words, while I’ll fashion the language into poetry.’

Assia was affronted; wasn’t she attuned enough to the nuances of the ancient language, to turn Amichai’s words into the same powerful images in English? Ted didn’t seem to realise that translating was an art in itself, not just a technical exercise. Finding English words to replace Yehuda’s powerful images, the nuance of his Hebrew metaphors, was complex and challenging. She knew she’d tuned into the music of his language, and that her translations matched meaning and sound as closely as possible. Give me some credit, she thought, but didn’t say.

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Excerpt from my novel

I’m re-writing ‘Capriccio’ under a new title. It seems that most readers have never heard of Ted Hughes’ poetry sequence of the same title, which is hardly surprising, considering they were first published as ‘rare books’ at the cost of 4000 English pounds each. So people may think my book is about music, as ‘Capriccio’ is mostly used as a musical term for a fast, merry piece. Assia’s story is far from merry, although she had some exciting times.

I’m re-writing ‘Capriccio’ under a new title.  It seems that most readers have never heard of Ted Hughes’ poetry sequence of the same title, which is hardly surprising, considering they were first published as ‘rare books’ at the cost of 4000 English pounds each. So people may think my book is about music, as ‘Capriccio’ is mostly used as a musical term for a fast, merry piece. Assia’s story is far from merry, although she had some exciting times.  

AMICHAI

Heads turned when Ted and Assia entered the Festival Hall on the opening night of the Festival. She looked strikingly beautiful, resplendent in glittering white satin, her skin glowing golden against the gown. Ted towered next to her, seeming immense against her delicacy, wearing his signature corduroy jacket, his hair unruly, looking every inch the romantic poet.

In keeping with the cosmopolitan theme of this star-studded occasion, Assia’s dark Semitic beauty was the perfect foil to English gentility. There were suppressed oohs and ahs, especially from some of the younger women. Assia moved with a haughty grace, ignoring stares, some of admiration, others mocking. Amongst the luminaries, Ted Hughes and Assia Gutmann reigned as the royal couple. To Assia, this night was a fulfilment of all her fantasies, enhanced by the bridal theme of her gown.

The visiting speakers included Pablo Neruda from Spain, Miroslav Holub from Czechoslovakia, and Allen Ginsberg from New York. For Ted and Assia the most important guest was Yehuda Amichai, from Israel. A leonine presence, Yehuda arrived escorting his young wife, Hannah. Assia had heard that he and Hannah had had a clandestine affair, and that Yehuda had left his wife for Hannah. The knowledge gave her hope that she, too, would one day walk at Ted’s side as his true wife.

Ted had discovered Yehuda’s work when researching for his book of translations. Immediately the two became friends; Ted was full of admiration for the poet’s honesty and courage. Like Assia, Amichai had fled the Nazis in Germany, but unlike her, had made Israel his permanent home.

‘My wife grew up in Israel,’ Ted told Yehuda, by way of recommending Assia as the translator of Amichai’s poems. Assia knew Ted was trying to ingratiate himself with the great poet, who’d become like a touchstone of a genius for him. Still, a small thrill of pleasure went through her, hearing Ted say the words ‘my wife.’ And to think he trusted her, Assia, with the translations.’We’ll work on Yehuda’s poems together,’ Ted had said , although he knew not a word of Hebrew. ‘You’ll do the technical part, finding the roughly equivalent words, while I’ll fashion the language into poetry.’

Assia was affronted; wasn’t she attuned enough to the nuances of the ancient language, to turn Amichai’s words, into the same powerful images in English? Ted didn’t seem to realise that translating was an art in itself, not just a technical exercise. Give me some credit, she thought, but didn’t say.

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An excerpt from Capriccio

Shura (Alexandra Tatiana Elise) Hughes Wevill was the daughter of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill
Shura (Alexandra Tatiana Elise) Hughes Wevill was the daughter of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill

Excerpt from ‘Pit and Stones’ a chapter in the novel in which Ted, Assia and the children are returning from a house-hunting trip in Manchester. They would never see each other again.

Just then the train gave a great jolt. Frieda, who’d been leaning forward, was catapulted into Assia’s lap. Ted braced himself and held on to Nick’s shirt tail. A squeal of brakes followed, and the train groaned to a shuddering stop. From somewhere in another compartment they heard a woman’s scream. Shura began to cry, still clutching the half-eaten cake. Assia held her close with one arm while protecting Frieda with her other.

‘What’s happening?’ she asked the world in general, and Ted in particular.

‘You stay here with the children. I’ll try to find out. And for God’s sake, can’t you stop your daughter snivelling?’

Assia turned her face away, smoothing Shura’s hair tenderly. ‘It’s all right, liebchen. Soon we’ll all be home.’ To Ted she said coldly, ‘You seem to forget that our daughter has just turned four. Just like you ‘forgot’ to come to her birthday party. This trip’s a great deal harder for her than it is for Frieda and Nick.’

© Dina Davis

Assia, Strauss, and World War II

At the end of World War II, the composer Richard Strauss, whose final work was an opera titled ‘Capriccio’, wrote:  ‘The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.’Strauss described the government sanctioned anti-semitism as ‘the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.’ Assia Gutmann, whose father was Jewish,  was one of the many victims of this period in history. At age six, she and her family were driven out of Berlin  by the anti-semitic policies of the Third Reich. Mercifully, their exile saved their lives, but Dr Gutmann’s family perished.

Folktale: an excerpt

 

The Last Leopard of Ein Gedi?
The Last Leopard of Ein Gedi?

What he wanted
Was the gold, black-lettered pelt
Of the leopard of Ein-Gedi.    

– from Ted Hughes, ‘Folktale’

 Is this supposed to be his way of making a date with me? Does he think I’m going to jump to his tune? The arrogance! Forget it … Assia crumpled Ted’s note, first carefully extracting the green shiny blade of grass and putting it into the vase on her desk, which always contained a few fresh blooms. Today they were pansies, deep orange and gold.

After all, hadn’t he accepted her challenge, picked up the gauntlet she’d thrown, like casting down dice at a casino? Looking at her name scrawled on the envelope, Mrs. A. Wevill,  Head Copywriter, c/- Notleys Ltd., Assia felt a jolt of excitement. The unknown was drawing her towards its secrets, and she knew she could only go forward.

The new cream phone on her desk rang. ‘Yes, Lily” she said into the receiver.

“Mrs Wevill, there’s a Mr. Wall who wants to discuss a new contract with you.”

Mr. Wall? She had no client with that name.

“Put him through please, Lily” she said.

“Did you get my note?” It was unmistakably Ted’s voice on the line.

“Just now,” she replied, then didn’t know what to say.

“So – is the third of July, in the afternoon, a suitable time for me to call? I have an hour or so between appointments in London that day.”

Assia thought quickly. Was she being “fitted in” between his more important appointments? Pride urged her to refuse,  if only to play for time. After a pause, she heard herself say, “ Yes, I could get away around three, just for a short time.”

There was a sigh, followed by silence, on the other end of the phone. To break it Assia said

“But why Mr. Wall?”

Ted chuckled, “Oh, it’s my pseudonym. I’m the fly on the wall, wherever you are, don’t you see?”

SHIBBOLETH: an excerpt from ‘Capriccio:a novel’

Note: This chapter comes half way through the novel. Assia has returned from a clandestine trip to Spain with her lover, Ted Hughes. She and her husband are on a holiday in Germany, when Assia discovers she’s pregnant.

Chapter 13. SHIBBOLETH
Germany, October 1962

The countryside in autumn was beautiful; in the forest, russet and gold leaves quivered on the great pine trees, standing tall and straight like sentinels. After picnicking in the shaded woods on dark pumpernickel bread, and cream cheese with paprika, their walk had slowed. It was getting dark, and both of them were weary.

Towards nightfall they reached a pretty little township, straight out of Hansel and Gretel. Assia felt at home in this rural village, as if she’d returned to the enchanted life of her early childhood, when she was protected by her mother, adored by her father, and cossetted by her German grandparents. She felt faint, and in spite of her fears, protective of the tiny life that might be growing inside her. Her body craved rest. She imagined sinking into clean white sheets under an eiderdown filled with soft goose feathers.

‘Let’s stay here tonight, darling. I’m worn out, and that little gasthaus we passed just now looks so welcoming. Not nearly as dilapidated as some of the houses here. I remember those little inns, like our bed-and-breakfast cottages in England. Vati and Mutti used to take me and Cissy to little gasthausen just like this one, in the summer holidays. The innkeepers were always so friendly and welcoming – before everything changed here, that is, when we were never welcome anywhere.’

‘Well, as long as they’ve got room for us,’ David said anxiously. ‘ Otherwise, we could take a late train to Berlin. I’m sure there’s a coach from here which would get us to the station in time.’ He stopped in the narrow cobbled street to rummage in his rucksack for the maps and timetables he carried with him.

‘Please, darling, I’m exhausted. And it’s getting late. Anyway, why wouldn’t they have room for us? After all, I’m the real thing, a native-born German, and you could pass for pure Aryan – is that what they call being ‘one of them’ now? With your fair hair and good looks, like a blond Adonis, who could resist you? ‘

They entered the inn, its peaked roof and flowered entrance looking just like the original gingerbread house of Assia’s childhood fairy tales. In the wood-panelled foyer, she admired the old-fashioned furniture and pretty landscapes on the wall. ‘Guten abend, mein Herr,’ said the proprietor, a short stocky man with round spectacles. He continued to speak in German, while looking closely at them both. David looked to Assia to translate.

‘He says welcome, he is pleased we have found this place which has the highest reputation for cleanliness and comfort. He’s sure he can accommodate us. Would we mind waiting, while he talks to his wife first?’

As Assia was translating, the innkeeper’s eyes never left her face. Something in their expression made her skin crawl with foreboding.

She and David waited in the foyer. There was nowhere to sit in the small space and in her weariness, Assia leaned against David. He put his arm around her tenderly. ‘Wonder what the hold-up is,’ he whispered smoothing the velvety dark hair from her forehead. His hand felt cool against her clammy skin, and for the moment Assia let go her misgivings.

After waiting in silence for what seemed an interminable time, they heard footsteps on the stairway. Two sets. The innkeeper led the way down, followed by a rotund woman wearing a floral dirndl, her hair hidden under a matching scarf. There was a starched white apron tied around her expansive girth.

‘Hier ist meine Frau.’ The host gestured to his wife, then stood back so that her body shielded him. The woman’s eyes glittered, boring into Assia. There was a moment’s uncomfortable silence. Assia felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickling, and a cold shiver passed over her. The woman began to speak rapidly in German, addressing David. Assia’s face fell as she listened, then turned to David.

‘But –but- this is crazy! She says she’s very sorry, Sir, but her husband was mistaken. They have no room available tonight.’

‘For heaven’s sake, ask her why? What’s the reason? This place is as quiet as the grave – looks like there are no guests here at all.’

‘Probably not. But can’t you see? She probably suspects something. Maybe she can tell I’m part-Jewish, and she thinks the war’s still on.’

‘Don’t be silly, Assia, how on earth could she tell?’

The woman watched and waited, her thick arms folded across her capacious bosom. Her husband stood behind her, pretending to busy himself with the big open ledger on the counter.

‘You’d be surprised, darling.’ Assia said. ‘They can sniff us out. Don’t worry, I’ll explain that I’m a bona fide German. That might put her nasty mind at rest.’

Assia turned to the woman, her eyes blazing with anger. ‘Aber meine gute Frau, ich bin Berliner – but my good woman, I’m from Berlin,’ she said in her most polished Hochdeutsch.

‘Nein, du bist eine schmutzige Judin, du bist nicht willkommen hierin,’ and with that the woman turned away, leaving David and Assia standing open-mouthed.

‘She says I’m a dirty Jewess, and we are not welcome here,’ Assia said slowly. ‘She’s using the familiar ‘du’ to show her contempt. After all, I’m not even Jewish; only Vati is, or was. He doesn’t believe in any religion now, after what happened to his family.’ Assia spoke in a low voice to David. ‘I’m German, through and through, like my mother. Clearly my father’s race is still hated here.’

An old memory flooded Assia’s mind, of being kicked and pummelled by ill-smelling boys who had seemed giants to her then, when she was a six-year-old child. Suddenly she was back in the playground of her first day at school in Berlin, and heard the taunts of the children: ‘Brown eyes, pickle pies! Your father’s a dirty Jew.’ It made no difference to them that her eyes were grey, not brown.

‘My differences will never go away, ‘she thought bitterly. ‘I’ll never be the same as the English with their cool polite talk and their easy manners. Little does that woman know I’m good enough to be the mistress of one of England’s greatest poets.

David turned to her, his face ablaze with anger. ‘These people are crazy, sweetheart. They’re furious, because they lost the war, and they have to blame somebody. Anything, but take responsibility for failure themselves. You can sense it everywhere, the air of defeat, and underneath still the old hatred’s still lurking. It’s pathetic. Let’s get out of this place; it reeks of pure evil. Tell them we wouldn’t stay here if it were the last place on earth.’

Assia stood her ground. Glaring at the woman, she translated word for word what David had said, and saw the woman’s mouth curl in contempt. Then, with her head held high, she walked slowly out on David’s arm, with a sarcastic ‘Vielen Dank – many thanks.’

©Dina Davis

Folktale

Note: This is  an excerpt from ‘Capriccio – a novel . It’s part of the chapter, ‘Folktale’ which inspired Anne Skyvington’s post on ‘Ein Gedi’:

Is this supposed to be his way of making a date with me? Does he think I’m going to jump to his tune? The arrogance! Forget it … Assia crumpled Ted’s note, first carefully extracting the green shiny blade of grass and putting it into the vase on her desk, which always contained a few fresh blooms. Today they were pansies, deep orange and gold.

Yet after all, hadn’t he accepted her challenge, picked up the gauntlet she’d thrown like dice at a casino? Looking at her name scrawled on the envelope (Mrs. A. Wevill, her Office, c/- Notleys) her face flushed. The unknown was drawing her towards its secrets, and she could only go forward into it.

The new cream phone on her desk rang. ‘Yes, Lily” she said into the receiver.

“Mrs Wevill, there’s a Mr. Wall who wants to discuss a contract with you.” Mr. Wall? She had no client with that name.

“Put him through please, Lily” she said.

“Did you get my note?” It was unmistakably Ted’s voice on the line.

“Just now,” she replied, then didn’t know what to say.

“So – is the third of July, in the afternoon, a suitable time for me to call? I have an hour or so between appointments in London that day.”

Assia thought quickly. Was she being “fitted in” between his more important appointments? Pride urged her to refuse, if only to play for time. After a pause, she heard herself say, “ Yes, I could get away around three, just for a short time.”

There was a sigh, followed by silence, on the other end of the phone. To break it Assia said “But why Mr. Wall?”

Ted chuckled, “Oh, it’s my pseudonym. I’m the fly on the wall, wherever you are, don’t you know’