Kakania in The Massachusetts Review

An excerpt from the fifth part of Kin is in the current (summer 2020) issue of The Massachusetts Review.

Thanks to the editors, especially Corine Tachtaris and Jim Hicks, for their interest and support. It’s a strong issue with plenty of global awareness and representation, including translations by Patty Crane (Tomas Tranströmer), Peter Bush (Juan Vitulli), Tess Lewis (Karl Markus-Gauss), Mirgul Kali (Mukhtar Magauin), Matthew Rinaldi (Maria José Silveira), Patricia Dubrava (Augustín Cadena), Julia Sanches (Soledad Puértolas), and Samantha Kirby (Ornela Vorpsi). There is also an essay on translation by Allison Grimaldi Donahue. Miljenko Jergović’s “Kakania” appears in my translation on p. 233. That’s quite a line-up, and yes, I did just put all the translators’ names first and their authors in parentheses after.

The cover features an intriguing aspect of translation that several of my non-fiction writer and translator colleagues and I have discussed in the past. Jergović is indeed an essayist as well as an author of fiction and poetry. His book Kin, which now has a cover up at the publisher’s website, has been characterized variously as an “epic,” a “saga,” a “family novel,” a “chronicle,” and “historical fiction.”

Partly, this is due to deliberate genre-bending by the author. He likes to write in the in-between spaces and test the boundaries of invention. But it is also due, in my opinion, to a general tendency in the English-language book market to mark the distinction between fiction and non-fiction more rigidly. The book is clearly what the French would call littérature, a category that does not translate well into the English market.

The section from which “Kakania” is drawn bears the wonderfully ambiguous title Inventarna knjiga, which plays with the notions of the inventory (a list of factual items, often in a commercial context) and the invented (the stuff of fiction) all while highlighting that this is a book within a book. What is its genre? This is not just a question about how to classify it, one of the emptiest and least interesting questions in genre criticism. It’s about how to read and understand it, just as one understands a government building by learning to recognize and mentally prepare oneself based on the architectural features it deploys.

Literary magazines tend to use genre markers in their own distinctive ways, narrowing down entire categories into the basic headings of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and review. (Translation can fit anywhere.) Sometimes editors play around with these categories and encourage crossings and mixings, but the labels are almost always there, and the option of simply presenting everything as littérature is relatively rare.

The most capacious of these, in my experience, tends to be non-fiction, and indeed, “Kakania” slips in here as “essay,” which seems perfectly fitting in terms of its spirit of exploration and experiment, even if it feels much narrower than what Jergović is up to in Kin.

Due out in May 2021.

Man, person, people, or none of the above

While editing a translation recently, I came up against the following challenge. In a passage in which two men are talking about art, one says to the other something to this effect: “The artist must develop his technique to the point that he does not think about it anymore.” The source language in this case is one that has the possessive pronoun agree with the noun (like French), so if the word “technique” were actually the French feminine-gendered noun technique in the source, then the possessive pronoun would be the feminine sa. In effect, the French says “her technique” because technique is a she, even if the person who might have the technique in question is a he. English, by contrast, tends to like its pronouns, wherever they might occur, to agree with the subject of the phrase, and this raises the issue of the changing use of “their” and “theirs” as a gender pronoun preference and a possible way around this sort of gender specificity of English.

If it had been just one instance, it probably would not have been a difficult problem to solve, but this was a piece about art, and there were multiple occasions where a character held forth, beginning with “the artist must” or “the artist should,” and then listed a string of clauses and nouns that often used possessive pronouns. The translator in this case had a preference for using “their” in all these cases, but my old ears and my Chicago Manual of Style were hesitant.

The speaker in all instances was a man, apparently hetero-normative, and he was speaking with another man, also hetero-normative. The author was also a man, and he did not express a preference. In my opinion, he may not have quite seen the subtleties of what we were discussing, so it was the translator and me thinking through this together.

Like my last post on the U-Man’s possible use of “like,” which will surely grate on old ears, especially those who know the book well in previous translations, I wonder about how the possessive pronoun “his,” even in such clear circumstances, might affect people’s reading at an almost unconscious level, especially that of college students who have grown used to the gender-neutral singular they/their/theirs.

My inclination in the end was to very carefully edit the two longer passages where this sort of construction occurs, such that the issue never appears to come up. This involved a few shifts of “the artist” to “artists” and some other very minor changes that I believe only the translator and I will ever notice. This, however, is a recent book that is being offered in English for the first time. Changing something like this in an older one with many translations in print, not to mention in the regular college curriculum, for a text moreover that has seen dozens if not hundreds of scholarly treatments in books and articles, often with minute attention to issues of language based on the existing English translations—well, this is bound to elicit strong opinions.

I believe this concern, namely, how college-age readers might respond to these books when they first read them is behind much of Gary Saul Morson’s objections to the translations of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonskaya, which he expresses quite sharply, calling them “awkward and unsightly muddles” among other things, in his 2010 “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature.”

It might appear ironic, but it is for a similar reason, namely, this interaction with readers at a key stage in their reading life, that I am tempted by a translation strategy that reduces the gender dichotomies of the U-man’s speech, enabling readings, especially readings aloud of the performative sort that I have suggested this text affords, that are broader, more inclusive, and in the end, more engaging for students encountering the text today.

This sort of specificity announces itself from the beginning, and as far back as two years ago when I posted the first in this series of reflections on translating Notes from Underground, I have wondered about it. What would it be like to edit along the lines of what I did for the book I mentioned above about the artist? What if the opening lines of this Notes from Underground were not, “I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man,” (each phrase of which interprets chelovek as “man,” though it could also be person all three times) but something more like this:

“I’m malevolent…. I’m bad. I am not an attractive person.”

Now before we pronounce this collectively as awful, or anything at all for that matter, I ask you to read it aloud, with pauses in between each phrase as appropriate for an opening monologue. The first phrase is an announcement. The dots are there because he’s trying to shock and is waiting for it to sink in. The second one is taunting: baaaad. The third is insinuating, as if “an attractive person” were in quotes—put your fingers up in the air and say it with a Trump voice.

I’m going through my version now, version two, with this principle in mind.

It’s, like, the ripest old age

The relative frequency of the word даже is something translators from Russian to English figure out at some point, and Dostoevsky’s palaverers present a classic case. Gogol’s are right up there as well, and I seem to recall that one of the most astute passages of Eikhenbaum’s “How Gogol’s Overcoat is Made” delves into the repetition of the word for comic effect. Dostoevsky’s usage strikes me as less funny or deliberate and often seems more of a tick than a device. One of the best ways to deal with it is to drop the “even” from the English. The same, it seems to me, is true of the word ведь. Here again, “even” is a possibility, but the connection is (even) more tenuous, and the word might in fact be more like an oral speech marker sometimes, indicating in effect that someone is speaking aloud, or pretending to, a little like someone might say, “you know” or “right” in English speech.

These variations occur to me as I look at this line: “Мне теперь сорок лет, а ведь сорок лет—это вся жизнь; ведь это самая глубокая старость.” To get at it requires a little more context obviously. The paragraph is where the U-man introduces the idea of the modern (19th-century) person’s—which means in this case his own—inability to become (another great construction: сделаться + instrumental) anything definite. Intelligent people can’t become, only fools can. This is his forty-year old conviction, and then we get the line in question.

The fact that this is a verbal performance has often been noted. In this it reminds me a lot of Nabokov’s Lolita, a performance that conjures a persona powerfully and with lasting effect. The basic characteristics of this voice have been generalized over time through the many fine translations that exist and are regularly read and taught. A translation today is not likely to change its basic contours, its dripping irony, biting, embittered tonal variations, self-congratulation, anger, indignation, and invective. Whether he “really” feels any of this is another question, which means I should add self-conscious to the list of its attributes. Indeed, who would want to change such a fantastic creation?

But I wonder about this dramatic quality in today’s English and whether he should continue to sound like a 19th-century functionary. And so I wonder about the use of a word like “like.” This is not my idiom. I have probably avoided it actively ever since living in southern California, where it was a powerful evocation of the Valley Girl persona. But since then it has become accepted and now appears (even) among groups who have never heard a Valley Girl speak.

Could a word like this work for the U-man?

The line in question could then be something like this: “This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age.”

And the slightly longer passage, using the same principle, would be something like this:

This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age. Living more than forty years is improper, disgusting, immoral! Who lives beyond forty? Answer me truthfully. Be honest. I’ll tell you who: bastards and fools.

 

More on Nature Writing

I found another, quite different, book that has added to my writing options, Where the Sea Breaks its Back, by Corey Ford. This is a much older book (first published in 1966), and though the prose has a somewhat dated quality at times, it uses some techniques that I am attracted to. The subtitle, “The Epic Story of a Pioneer Naturalist and the Discovery of Alaska,” gives the basic premise, but I would say this is just where it begins.

Instead, I would call it an ostensible premise, and while it is something like a biography of Georg Steller, who was indeed remarkable and deserving of a biography, this book isn’t really that. Instead, it uses Steller to explore with him and document, partially through his eyes, Bering’s second journey to discover whether Eurasia and North America were linked or not. But even here it is much more about natural history than the history of the voyage itself, though one gets both. The human ordeal is told well, mostly on the basis of Steller’s notes and those of Lieutenant Sven Waxell, who took over command of the party after Bering’s death on the island that bears his name.

The writing is quite effective. It is not a scholarly book, and there are no footnotes to the many quotations. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to get away with quite so little in terms of references.

The remarkable thing is that the book has something of a narrative arc that is different from the story of Bering’s voyage or Steller’s life. Somewhere around page 140 out of a little over 200, the sea otter makes its appearance through Steller’s observations. After that, it never really leaves the book, and Steller almost seems to take a second place to it. In fact I found myself beginning to be more interested in the fate of the sea otter as a species, which was almost completely wiped out over the next 150 years of plunder, than I was in Steller, whose role grows less important as he departs the scene and becomes weaker in spirit, until he finally fades out in a blur of alcohol.

But the otter endures, and the book’s final pages are devoted to it, a strong move on the part of the author, it seems to me, moving from the naturalist to nature.

Memoir, Nature Writing, Biology

I have found in the past that reading widely and apparently outside the field I’m thinking about has helped me write my own books, so I’ve been exploring a bit as I imagine Sea of Intimacy.

I read a review of this book…25002982

in The NY Review of Books a few years ago, and thought I should have a look. It turned out to be much richer and deeper than I anticipated. The fact that I found it in the university’s biology library might have something to do with why it is not better known: people probably don’t quite know how to categorize it. To me it could as easily be a memoir as a book about the natural world.

There are very strong ideas in it–too many to enumerate–and also a beauty of expression that matches the subject matter quite skillfully all the way through. One recurring idea that does not have an index entry but should is the notion of the “fifty thousand generations” during which homo sapiens lived on the planet as hunter-gatherers, in close communion with the natural world. McCarthy returns to it as something of a leitmotif (e.g., “the bond of fifty thousand generations with the natural world,” “the legacy of the fifty thousand generations of the Pleistocene”). Another reminds me of the great chain of being notion (though not religiously inflected in this case) of the wondrous astonishment at what the world can contain.

The author’s many joyful encounters with the natural world are carefully interlaced with personal memories, life encounters, and stories of the dedication and shared wonder with others, including his relationship with his mother (a strong indicator of memoir). The attention to detail in nature even amid the human-made world reminds me of a book I translated, The Other Venice, by Predrag Matvejević, but Matvejević is tonally subdued by contrast to McCarthy, who does not mind at all waxing lyrical, quoting poetry, and finding moments of intense emotion even amid apparently humdrum non-resplendent environments, as when he feels he has discovered a secret in suburbia, namely, “that in the chorale of birdsong silvering the silence, the stillness and the great bursting dawn overhead, for a brief half-hour even the land of the lawnmower can approach perfection” (203).

A major reason the book might very well be mis-categorized in the biology library is that one of McCarthy’s principle propositions, which he borrows from Joseph Conrad, is that “the influence of the artist is more enduring and goes deeper than the work of the scientist” (217), a notion that frames the book–it is first offered up on pp. 27-28)–and provides the main rationale for its manner of exposition, which is beautiful and joyous and definitely worth spending time with, whether one is imagining one’s own book through its prism or not.

 

Publishing Kin

It looks like Archipelago Books will publish Kin in the first half of 2021. In the meantime, we are working together on some first serial publication excerpts. I have taken three and contacted two editors I know at lit mags to start, while the folks at Archipelago are working on a handful of others. This ability to excerpt is probably a major publishing virtue of the book, and indeed Miljenko Jergović published many short segments in a variety of venues in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, leading up to the book’s full publication in Croatia in 2013.

If those two editors pass on the excerpts I’ve got, I’ll go to two others, and so on. Depending on how well Jill Schoolman and her people do with theirs, I might take more to send out. All this really ought to happen in the first half of this year since the better lit mags generally are a good year out in terms of the publication schedule (though you can sometimes squeeze something in later if they have space and are interested).

Revisiting excerpts also allows me to revise again, which can of course go on forever until you’re just removing and replacing commas. When I’m at that point, I’ll be very happy.

Happy 2020!

Mare Superum and St. Paul’s Shipwreck

The Strait of Otranto is today the generally accepted dividing line between the Adriatic Sea and its neighbor to the south, the Ionian, but discovering exactly where the strait stops and starts, like many a water boundary, depends on who you ask and when. This southern boundary, moreover, is relatively recent. In a certain sense the fuzziness of its southern confines is understandable when one considers the Adriatic in a historical context that might come as a surprise to the inhabitants of, say, Scandinavia: it was long considered a northern sea. This quality in fact was what first-century Romans thought most noteworthy when they occasionally named it the Mare Superum or “Upper Sea” instead of any of its other names. “Adriatic” in turn appears to have derived from an old Etruscan city, Atria, which was located in the far north near the mouth of the Po River.

Tracing the Ancient references makes it clear that the boundaries of this sea, while obvious where the land met the water in the north, tended to be quite variable and sometimes contentious to the south, extending with Roman colonial expansion first to the Gargano Peninsula and then onward to Otranto, Roman Hydruntum. As Rome’s colonial expansion did not stop there, however, but kept growing, so too did the sea’s supposed dominion, infiltrating the Gulf of Taranto and overtaking both the Sicilian and Ionian Seas. For Procopius of Caesarea, writing in the sixth century, the Adriatic’s southern reaches appear to have extended far into the wider Mediterranean while the sea’s defining geographical trait mentioned in his History of the Wars is not a north-south boundary but an east-west one, with the island of Malta as the defining line between what he calls the Adriatic Sea, which appears to encompass the central Mediterranean, and what he calls the Tuscan, which reaches around the Italian Peninsula up to Tuscany.[1] [I am considering adding a roughly sketched map here]

It is in this context that the geography of the disciple Paul’s experience recounted in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles 27:39 to 28:11 has often been explained: upon leaving Crete, the vessel in which he traveled was said to have encountered a storm on the Adriatic that drove it towards the Maltese coast. But here ancient conceptions of time and space have tended to confound as often as clarify. The Biblical account does not say how long they had sailed before they met the storm, only how long it drove the ship to and fro after they met it (fourteen days). If they had hugged the coast, as ancient navigators were wont to do, perhaps it skirted up and around rather than headed out to open waters, making landfall, after this storm, not on Malta, as is believed by some, but on Mljet, off the coast of Dalmatia, as others have claimed. The ancient coast lines were likely quite different than what we see today, and there is evidence to suggest that much of what is land in modern memory was then water.[2] It turns out, moreover, that the two islands are referenced in both Greek and Roman sources by the same name—Melita—and each island has a harbor named after St. Paul, along with local attestations to his stay there after a storm and a shipwreck. Both regional and international scholarly opinion has come to the aid of such claims over the centuries, swaying this way and that with the region’s geo-political tempests. And so when the Spaniards controlled Malta, English opinion placed the great saint’s landing on Mljet, but when England controlled Malta, new research proved he had landed on Malta after all.[3]

[1] Book III, Chapter 14 (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_the_Wars/Book_III#XIV)

[2] See Wilkes, The Illyrians, 1992, on the ancient coast and changes since.

[3] Ignjat Durdevic’s 1730 Venetian monograph places St. Paul’s shipwreck on Mljet. Ignjat Đurđević: Sveti Pavao apostol brodlomac (St Paul the Apostle Castaway), Miho Demović (ed.), Dubrovačke knjižnice, 2008.

Glagolitic Reflections

The so-called “Glagolitic Path,” or, as the locals name it, the Aleja glagljaša, runs for a little more than four miles through the idyllic countryside of Istria’s Mirna Valley Basin between the villages of Roč and Hum. Nowhere near so well-traveled as the coastal towns just to the west, it is no less picturesque. Hilltop villages speckle the landscape, which has a fairy-tale quality that has often induced in me the anxious sensation that some unexpected, stunning surprise lies waiting just over the next incline. It often does.

In this wide, relatively open, sunny expanse the waters of the Mirna (or “peaceful”) River gather together before making their way down to empty, also quite humbly, into the Adriatic some twenty-five miles to the southwest near the town of Novigrad. Local legends suggest that the river was named after the wife of the giant Dragonja, who, when out tilling his fields one day, dug an especially deep trench all the way from the heights of the Ćićarija plateau to the sea. It is unclear from the stories whether Dragonja was happy or frustrated that the water that filled in his furrow moved slowly and steadily, for which quality he gave it his wife’s name.

The Path, which is probably best understood as a public art project or perhaps a modest ethnopark, was created between 1977 and 1983 to commemorate the heritage of Glagolitic writing, which featured prominently in the religious and cultural history of Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, and Dalmatia. As I note this, using words like “commemorate” and “heritage” and “featured,” it occurs to me that some might be inclined relegate the script, with its exotic sounding name and, to them at least, obscure history, to the category of bygone curiosities, artifacts of material culture significant primarily for their developmental value. It is a common way of thinking and categorizing among scholars of cultural history. We read and consider every artifact along historical timelines, it is true, and the categorizing and interpreting impulses tend to make everything of equal interest, a little like the underwater archeological prism I have noted elsewhere. But then some things catch our attention by jumping out of line, as it were, suggesting in fact that they might be of interest somehow outside history, not just because they are part of a chronology and lead to some subsequent stage but for other reasons that seem to speak to us directly, outside the context of our search for items of “developmental significance.” On this basis we sometimes switch our approach completely, seeing wonders and masterpieces in these exceptional cases, thinking that because they speak so to us they must also speak to others in the same way and not just in our own time. Perhaps, we think, they are of some intrinsically human interest.

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin accounted for this phenomenon by suggesting that some cultural inventions incorporate not just content but “potential” inside them, such that they can live on beyond the time in which they were created and continue to grow, as future generations open them up and find new things that past generations might not have seen, all while continuing to recognize that the things earlier generations saw must also be “in there.” It is a brilliant solution to the generations-old question of how multiple interpretations of one and the same cultural artifact can be equally valid.

I suppose from a certain perspective, Glagolitic must appear as what Jan Morris, in her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere calls “another kind of arcanum” (155) whose presence “so close to the city center of Trieste” is “like an unsuspected spell or exorcism, left in the attic.” It is thus mysterious and exotic, a remnant of a dark past that lingers in unknown places, hidden amid the dust of forgotten documents, and then creeps out to dazzle us with its unexpected shapes and squiggles when we are busy looking for something else. Or perhaps we must travel far to find it, venturing down into peripheral or interstitial territories about which we have only heard stories. Thus Glagolitic is “like no other European writing” and “for centuries… defied the intrusion of the Latin alphabet” (Ibid., 156). This is basically true. It is also thick with perspective, partly Morris’s (whose subject is Trieste, after all, not Istria, let alone the eastern Adriatic), partly that of the members of the Istrian émigré community who made their home in Trieste following their departure from Istria after World War II. I have felt the thickness of this perspective, its palpability, which is based on real and hard-lived experience, and so I cannot say that it is wrong. But it is certainly limited and incomplete.

While many outsiders know about the use of two writing systems in the Balkans, Latinate and Cyrillic, fewer are aware of Glagolitic, which is in fact older than the latter though not so old as was once believed. For hundreds of years Glagolitic was thought to have been invented in the fourth century by St. Jerome, whose now legendary birthplace somewhere on the border between Dalmatia and the Pannonian plain combined effectively with his spiritual authority as the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, on the one hand, and the most learned of the Church Fathers, on the other, to shore up support for the alphabet’s continued use over the centuries, particularly as part of the liturgical language. In addition to “Illyrian” and “Slovenish,” the script is thus often referred to in medieval manuscripts as “Hieronymian,” after Jerome’s Latin name, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus. Jerome’s skill with numerous languages and the fact that the letters of Glagolitic appear to derive from a variety of ancient scripts, including Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Samaritan, and Coptic, helped to keep the story alive, and it is easy to sense the power of the tradition behind doing so, as the clerics told themselves and others that they were continuing along the path forged a thousand and more years before, preserving the great Jerome’s legacy in its purest form, the system of writing down the sounds of their language that he had created. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

Bastards All

Mixture has turned out to provide an especially fruitful path of inquiry in researching this book, while its relationship to intimacy has furnished one of my central themes.

I am aware that there is another sense to the term in question, but let us begin with this.

A Baster is a member of a racially mixed group of frontier people who live in Namibia and North West South Africa. The name appears to come from the Afrikaans baster, meaning “half-breed.” They were once also called Bastaards—a spelling that, I suppose, means the a is long as in father—and are believed to be descendants of eighteenth-century Dutch and French fathers and Khoi-Khoi (Hottentot) mothers. They speak a dialect of Dutch but have some knowledge of Khoi-Khoi. They long lived in autonomous hybrid communities founded in the nineteenth century, which blended a variety of traditions and practices of their parent cultures. The early Basters were proud of their White ancestry, which they would emphasize to justify claims of superiority over their aboriginal neighbors.

This is a way of seeing one’s own skin color that most white people never experience, an instrumental and objectivized approach to some part of yourself, a little like being proud of having a car that’s better than your neighbor’s, only it’s not a car you drive, it’s one you wear, or better one that’s attached to your body as a kind of automotive appendage that you see every time you look in the mirror, from ever since you were aware of yourself as a distinct person, a constituent self-object inherited from your mother, or your father, or some distant, great great Bastaard relative.

“Bastard toadflax” refers to small annual or perennial herbs of the sandalwood family. They have narrow leaves like true toadflax, but they are not true toadflax. In the same way, “bastard saffron” is not true saffron, “bastard pimpernel” not true pimpernel, and “bastard balm” not true balm. It might seem on the surface that these names all refer to, and so in a sense benefit from, the association with the true. But in effect their names all define them fundamentally by their difference from something else, the absence of something in them, their impurity, falseness, inauthenticity. They resemble but are not some other thing, something other and better because it is called what it is and it is that, not something other and worse because it is not that.

This puts them together in a surprisingly productive category of things defined by what they resemble but are not, as for instance most things termed faux—faux leather, faux pearls, faux fur, though faux is not always the same as bastard. Faux bois is not real bois, it’s imitation, like all the other imposters. We can put a faux memoir, which is not to be confused with a false memory—why does everything change so much when you translate it into French?—in this category as well. But a faux pas really is a pas, it’s just a really bad one. In some ways a faux pas might be a more distinctive pas than a non-faux pas. We perform a thousand non-faux pas every day, and no one ever notices. They are the mundane details of life, rather boring and forgettable. But a faux pas is unique, memorable, the stuff of stories, though not of the heroic sort. The faux pas finds its place in the salon rather than on the field of battle. Nevertheless, it has a bold authenticity that a mere pas can never hope to achieve.

A “flat bastard” is a type of metal file specific to the North American system of pattern coarseness. It refers to the tooth spacing, or number of teeth per inch, on a file, usually a metal one but wood is also possible. This file renders a “bastard cut,” which is the result of having the fewest number of teeth per inch. The more teeth there are on the file, the smoother the finish after filing. Which means that the obverse is also true: the fewer the teeth, the rougher the finish.

This usage is analogous to the bastarda script that was used for less formal, vernacular texts in France and Germany during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bastarda being synonymous with less refined, less polished, less sophisticated. Presumably a liturgical text (in Latin) would not have been printed in such a bastard script, just as a fine wood would not be subjected to a course bastard file, flat or otherwise. Both these uses reassure in their democratic implications, their roughness marking a natural authenticity, an absence of elitism, exclusion, or snobbery. Applying the word faux to your flat bastard or claiming that your flat bastard was better than someone else’s flat bastard because it had, say, even fewer teeth than his—distorts the very idea of the bastard in all its purity.

Bastard appears numerous times in the King James Bible. In Zechariah 9:6, “And a bastard shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines”; in Hebrews 12:8, “But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons”; and in Deuteronomy 23:2, “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter in to the congregation of the Lord.” The usage is rather inconsistent from one Bible translation to another, where “mongrel,” “mixed” might be preferred, while in several more recent translations, instead of “bastard,” terms like “foreigner,” “half-breed,” and phrases like “born of a forbidden marriage” appear. The confusion appears to center around the Hebrew concept mamzer. According to rabbinic law, this name refers to offspring of individuals unable to contract a legal marriage, especially if it would be incestuous. The child of parents genealogically free to marry is never understood as a mamzer, regardless of how few teeth it might have.

The Venetian galea bastarda, or “bastard galley,” was a cross between the galea sottile and the galea grossa. It was characterized by its relatively fuller hull and stronger built, which allowed it to accommodate a fourth, and later a fifth, rower per bench. Some of these rowers would eventually be captured Turks, others enslaved Morlachs from Dalmatia, but the Venetians held out against the practice of slave rowers on their military vessels for as long as they could, preserving, it seems, the practice of citizen rowers from the Ancient World. The increased size and strength of the bastard galley made it especially suitable for use as a flagship in both military and commercial expeditions. A bastard sail is also known as a lateen mainsail, that revolutionary design that allowed sailors to maneuver both upwind and down and was especially popular among the islands of the eastern Adriatic, where even today there are special “lateen” regattas.

The English word bastard appears to derive from the Medieval Latin word bastum, meaning a pack saddle used by muleteers traveling from inn to inn. Calling someone a “fils de bast,” or “son of the bastum,” was a euphemistic manner of suggesting a child not born of marriage bed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that bantum is related to “bantling,” a corruption of the German “bänkling,” from bank, or bench, suggesting a child begotten on a bench rather than a bed. These words thus at some earlier point in their histories carried subtle allusive qualities that the contemporary usage of bastard makes rather ironic, bastard having been coarsened over time. Bastard, in fact, was once a relatively common name. Its bearers include a minor French composer of the sixteenth century, a Devon family established at Kitley near Yealmpton in the late seventeenth century, and a geographical district of Canada, in the Province of Ontario. With the term’s descent into abuse, many former bearers of course changed their names, leaving most descendants ignorant of their true origins.

A New Book

Having settled into the new year, I have discovered that I’m apparently writing a new book. The realization came to me rather suddenly, but as soon as it did, I understood that I’ve been preparing to write this book for many years. I believe it is called Sea of Intimacy. I believe this is its first line:

The Atlantic and Pacific are seas of distance, the Mediterranean a sea of propinquity, the Adriatic a sea of intimacy.

Predrag Matvejević, Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape

The book from which the quote comes was translated into English from its original Serbo-Croatian version (which was called Mediteranski brevijar) by Michael Henry Heim and published in the title above by the University of California Press in 1999. I gave a talk at the annual Mediterranean Studies Association meeting in 2018 that explored the idea of Adriatic intimacy, and perhaps that was what started making me see it. Now I can’t get it out of my mind. Here are some paragraphs from the start.

On first glance, the claim made by Predrag Matvejević that has given me this book’s title and first epigraph might seem surprising given the many human conflicts that have historically ranged across the Adriatic’s waters, some of them for centuries at a time. Given this apparent disparity, my first inclination is to interrogate the varied crossings of culture, language, ethnicity, and faith that might be used to support such a claim. Here one might consider the solidarity of slaves constructing Diocletian’s Palace in the early fourth century, or the ties of blood among extended Sephardic Jewish and diasporic Greek families that served as sometime intermediaries among the powers of Ottoman Turkey, Venice, Ragusa, Austria, and Ancona, or the mixed marriages and mixed idioms of the sundry peoples who have made their lives here. Mixture has turned out to provide an especially fruitful path of inquiry in researching this book, while its relationship to intimacy has furnished one of my central themes. Mixture and intimacy go hand in glove in the Adriatic.

In his fine treatment of cultures and lands in propinquity to one another, Black Sea, Neil Ascherson notes that “peoples who live in communion with other peoples, for a hundred or a thousand years, do not always like them—may, in fact, have always disliked them. As individuals, the ‘others’ are not strangers but neighbors, often friends.” He was writing of course about another sea, on the other side of the Balkan Peninsula from the Adriatic, at a different historical moment, but it is relatively plausible to substitute “Adriatic” in many instances where he has the word “Black,” somewhat like this:

“My sense of [Adriatic] Sea life, a sad one, is that the latent mistrust between different cultures is immortal. Necessity, and sometimes fear, binds such communities together. But within that binding-strap they remain a bundle of disparate groups—not a helpful model for the ‘multi-ethnic society’ of our hopes and dreams. It is true that communal savagery—pogroms, ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the name of some fantasy of national unity, genocide—has usually reached the [Adriatic] Sea communities from elsewhere, an import from the interior. But when it arrives the apparent solidarity of centuries can dissolve within days or hours. The poison, upwelling from the depths, is absorbed by a single breath” (Ascherson 1995: 9).

Ascherson’s claim of “a bundle of disparate groups” as a characterization of the Black Sea seems to ring true for the Adriatic across its history on some level, and yet it contrasts profoundly with Matvejević’s evocation, and the echoes of that evocation before and after, most recently in a 2017 exhibit held in Trieste’s Salone degli Incanti devoted to underwater archeology in the Adriatic and entitled, “Nel mare dell’intimità” (In the Sea of Intimacy) in reference to the very same key passage from Matvejević’s Mediterranean.

The urge to speak of the Adriatic as one thing and the peoples of the Adriatic as one people is palpable, even explicit at times, in the exhibit’s contextualizing materials, as in this characterization: “At the centre of it all—commerce and military expeditions, big enterprises and evil trades, ship wrecks and recoveries—always them: the inhabitants of the Adriatic shores, one great people sharing many different languages and cultures, extending well beyond the sea.” Taken as a whole, moreover, the exhibit appears to provide evidence of such a claim of unity and commonality, through its ten organizing categories: the Adriatic space, ports and landing places, ships, goods, peoples, activities, wars, sacred places, migrations—all delivered through the prism of the last category, underwater research. It is wonderfully coherent and convincing, yet I am left unconvinced of this central claim. I suspect what I might be sensing here is attributable to differences of perspective and emphasis and to the categories one uses as the basis for judgment about the relative unity or lack of unity of the phenomena in question. The categories themselves seem to me essential.

Before I go any farther, and lest anyone think that I am criticizing the work of scholars in other fields, some of which I know little about, let me emphasize that I too am attracted by the urge to speak of the Adriatic as one thing and the peoples of the Adriatic as one people, especially in a sort of historic symbiosis of nationalities, religions, and languages, something that Ascherson rightly points out has often appealed to visitors eager for viable proof that, despite today’s narrow nationalisms, different peoples can in fact get along and have done so over millennia. “But,” he cautions, “nostalgia makes bad history. The symbiosis has often been more apparent than real” (Ascherson 1995: 245). I am not sure I agree with this last statement, not yet. This is the beginning of a book after all.