Toccata & Fugue. On authorship, translation & originality


Abstract: Supposedly a personal account of Bach’s life by his second wife, The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach (1925) is both a fictional biography and a pseudotranslation. By retracing the assumptions that led to a maze of counterfeit narratives in the text, the article seeks to illuminate the diverse functions of translation as a means of (re)defining a geography of images and (mis)conceptions.

Keywords: biography, pseudotranslation, anonymity, translated literature, authorship

Biography, forgery & le dur desir de durer

If dead, we cease to be; if total gloom Swallow up life’s brief flash for aye, we fare As summer-gusts, of sudden birth and doom, Whose sound and motion not alone declare,

But are their whole of being! If the breath Be Life itself, and not its task and tent,

If even a soul like Milton’s can know death;

O Man! thou vessel purposeless, unmeant,

Yet drone-hive strange of phantom purposes! Surplus of Nature’s dread activity,

Which, as she gazed on some nigh-finished vase, Retreating slow, with meditative pause,

She formed with restless hands unconsciously. Blank accident! nothing’s anomaly!

Samuel Coleridge (1815), «Human Life», p. 425

Biography may well be one of the most comforting forms of narrative. It builds its allure on the impression of solidity, as it (re)presents life in miniature, life as lived, understood and perpetuated. In its impetus, the biographical account may be seen as a form of hybris, a mutiny against death and a sort of life-affirming creed.

The very (im)possibility of narrating a life rages at human fragility and seeks to escape, however briefly, the throes of mortality through the illusion of durability. In a sense, all biography is nothing but forgery.

As I have argued elsewhere (Lopes, “Notes” 85-104), this genre is always a hybrid construct, perpetually blurring the lines between historiography and fiction. The Gradgrindian longing for “[n]othing but Facts” (Dickens 47), allied to the all too human yearning for mnemonical stability, tends to obscure the evidence that narration develops necessarily out of sequentiality, which may or may not be arranged chronologically but is always the result of a struggle with and/or against time: “A narration is the symbolic presentation of a sequence of events connected by subject matter and related by time” (Scholes 209). Paul Ricoeur takes “temporality to be that structure of existence that reaches language in narrativity and narrativity to be the language structure that has temporality as its ultimate referent” (Ricoeur 169-76).

This “reciprocal relationship” to time is, perhaps, nowhere as strong as in biography. Obviously, time informs biographical writings in a myriad of ways, but, for the purposes of the present reflection, I am mostly interested in how time is remembered in biography. Re-membering time may be seen as a gesture that actually (re)shapes lived experience, as it organises it in a syntax that always comes after, it follows that it can be considered an interpretive gesture. As such, biography often translates into well-rounded (trimmed) meaning - no loose ends, only controlled hapharzardness. Thus, randomness in life lived becomes, all too often, meaningful sequence in a life told: “First we look for story-events sequentially related (possessing, shall we say, an irreducible minimum of connexity’). And sequence goes nowhere without his doppelganger or shadow, causality”. (Kermode 83-84). Arguably a form of meaningfulness, “connexity” is a key to an enduring life - life that resists and defies death. By definition, biography yearns after timelessness, by selecting and crystallising life events into a meaningful sequence - a sort of monument to a life well lived: Exegi monumentum aereperennius. Therefore, biography can and indeed has been seen as quintessentially anti-historical.

[B]iography [...], however much history it contains, is constructed on principles that are not only non-historical but anti-historical. Its limits are biological events, the birth and death of a human organism: its framework is thus a framework not of thought but of natural process. Through this framework—the bodily life of the man, with his childhood, maturity and senescence, his diseases and all the accidents of animal existence—the tides of thought, his own and others’, flow crosswise, regardless of its structure, like sea-water through a stranded wreck. Many human emotions are bound up with the spectacle of such bodily life in its vicissitudes, and biography, as a form of literature, feeds these emotions and may give them wholesome food; but this is not history. (Collingwood 304)

Regardless of Collingwood’s agenda and his idea of history back in 1946, the heart of the matter remains that “much of a man’s life is lived inside his own head” (Shields 60), and for that reason “[t]he task of the biographer is to enlarge on available data” (ibid. 40). The verifiable “facts” that compound a life are simply not enough to translate the density and complexity of a life: “It’s the arrangement of events that makes the stories. It’s throwing away, compressing, underlining. Hindsight can give structure to everything, but you have to see it” (ibid. 58).[2] It follows that every life needs a narrator, and every narrator produces a different story: “The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell” (Okri 112).

By its very nature, biography is an afterthought, a way of dealing with the fortuitousness and apparent absurdity of life by tidying it up and imbuing it with purpose. Even when written during the subject’s lifetime — as is becoming evermore common nowadays —, biographies tend to underline and sustain a sense of purpose, which is, in gesture and intention, fictional. As Ben Okri poetically puts it, “[w]hen we started telling stories we gave our lives a new dimension: the dimension of meaning - apprehension - comprehension” (113). The same holds true for biography.

Upon reflection, it would seem obvious that biography is a fabrication of sorts, its impulse being to map out, to establish frontiers, to translate existence into words — i.e., to freeze the movement that is life itself. As a product of time even while wishing to supress it, biography is a most fragile genre. It operates out of a will to remember, but, in order to achieve its purpose, it has to court and indeed to favour forgetfulness. And forgetfulness takes on many shapes and forms: the biographer has to leave aside many details in order to be able to assemble a stable portrait of the person s/he is writing about, but mostly s/he has to forget that the depiction, any depiction, is a lie. Because it is incomplete. Because, as Freud suggested, it cannot be done.[3]

In her essay on “The Art of Biography”, Virginia Woolf offers that “the biographer must accept the perishable, build with it, imbed it in the very fabric of his work. Much will perish; little will live” (506-10). The perishable claims the biographer’s intervention in a manner not unlike that of the novelist, as biography, like history, “obeys the imperative of producing a literary fiction intended to deceive death or to hide the real absence of the figures with which it deals” (Certeau 323).

Thus, all biography tends to be literally conservative in gesture, aiming, as it commonly does, to construct and/or preserve the notion of life as (stable) narrative. As Hayden White refers, albeit in a different context, the “value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” (The Content 24). Seen in this light, biography is an attempt to escape human frailty, to forget that “even before entering the fray he [Man] already carries a wound in his temple” (Ortega y Gasset 50).

The solidifying impetus is particularly unequivocal when the biographer’s aim is clearly to draw up a map of genius, which is the case of the work we discuss here: The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach. Published in 1925, the text does not so much attempt to be a biography in the academic sense of the word but is presented as a personal account of Johann Sebastian Bach’s life by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. Because the first edition of the text is silent on the matter of authorship, the reader is led to believe that the Madgalena Bach mentioned in the title is the author. She certainly appears authoritative, if authority relies on intimate knowledge of the subject.

“Write,” he [Caspar Burgholt] said, “write a little chronicle of that great man. You knew him as no one else knew him, write all that you remember and I do not suppose your faithful heart has forgotten much - of his words, his looks, his life, his music. People neglect his memory now, but not always will he be forgotten, he is too great for oblivion, and some day posterity will thank you for what you shall write.” (Meynell, Little Chronicle 3)

The narrator, and postulated author, is a woman whose existence is indelibly interwoven with her husband’s: “Thus [with marriage] began my real life - that which had gone before had been but a preparation and a waiting” (ibid. 19). The lack of autonomy of the narrating self serves a dual narrative purpose. On the one hand, it produces narrative credibility, for she is, in a very powerful (and quite disturbing) sense, construed to be the epitome of the Lebensgefahrtin. On the other, it implicitly underscores the distance between Bach and everyone else, including his wife and biographer, because, while in awe of his gifts, she is the first to admit she does not fully understand them: “I do not profess that I could understand all his music - indeed, I would have needed to be as big as he himself was to do so...” (ibid. 84). Authority, however diluted, is a by-product of intimacy.

Because Anna Magdalena presents herself as one of the chosen few in Bach’s circle, she is the perfect vehicle to put up a monument to his genius, to set up a literary site of pilgrimage to Johann Sebastian Bach - as in religion, fragility seems to be the sine qua non condition for acknowledging and worshipping the divine: “I sometimes think how rarely privileged I have been, out of all the people in this world, that the music Sebastian wrote from the year of our marriage to his death is all woven in the very texture of my life and means to me what it can never mean to any other" (ibid. 83).

Interestingly enough, while the chronicle strives to provide the reader with an intimate look on Bach’s life, it never actually opens up access to the inner man. Although the text is an emotional tribute to Bach’s greatness, it commands reverence. And, while reverence produces admiration and awe, it does not invite proximity. This is biography as hagiography: “The extraordinary and the possible support each other in building up a fiction, placed here in the service of exemplarity” (ibid. 274). The hagiographic inclination is all the more obvious as Bach gets compared to Luther and, more subtly, to Christ.

From the very beginning, Bach’s superiority and unattainability are explicitly stated, first in relation to the narrator herself and then to all others, including the reader :“there was something about him which gave a great impression of strength - a sort of rock-like quality - and he always seemed to stand out among other people as if he were bigger physically, when really it was morally and in his mind he was so much bigger” (ibid. 9). Adjectives play an immensely important role in creating an object for worship, thus morphologically translating the pragmatics of the text.

As we have seen, the narrator’s life is, in all senses but one, entwined in and dependent upon the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the end of the narrative is metaphorically a reenactment of a death: her own. From the point of view of the biography, her existence is justified by the necessity of telling the story. She can therefore be read ironically as a modern-day, “inverted” Scheherazade: when the story comes to an end, the storyteller may be allowed to die.

And thus I have come to the end of the story of the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. The task which Caspar Burgholt in the first place set before me of telling, as clearly as I might remember, the history of his life and works [...] is now finished. Because it is finished I feel as if my own life had come to its close. There is no further reason for living: my real life came to an end on the day Sebastian died, and I pray daily that in His mercy the good God will take me away from this place of shadows, and let me once more be with my Sebastian, who, ever since I first loved him, has been my all of good. The time is long away from him. (ibid. 182-183)

Having finished the book, the reader is no more privy to Bach’s feelings and thoughts than before. That was never the purpose of the book in any case. The little chronicle - the name is anything but innocent, reminiscent as it is of one of Bach’s works (Notenbuch der Anna Magdalena Bach / Notebookfor Anna Magade- lena Bach) and underlining the unpretentiousness of the narrative effort at the same time - appears to exclusively fulfill one of the aims of biography in the 18th and 19th centuries, namely, “to incorporate the intimate details of a person’s life; and in doing so they ran up against the fundamental issues such as verifiable facts versus likelihoods, personal privacy versus public knowledge, the biographer’s role in giving interpretations, opinions and judgements.. ” (Rollyson 4). In the case of The Little Chronicle, the surplus of imagination serves, as we have seen, the goal of further canonising the musician.

In this it represents a kind of translation of relics - a possible path to sacredness and worship. It is my contention that the yearning for singularity, which more often than not underlies biography writing, be it eulogising or “unauthorised”, tends to abolish fluidity and uncertainty, thus creating the pretence that biography is the literal rendering of what is always perceived as a remarkable life. Biography, as translation, becomes a means of crystallisation. It forges an enduring life. As does translation.

  • [1] A first, and concise, approach to this topic was published in “Notes on World Literature and Translation. From Tradition to Transgression and Back?”, A New Visibility: OnCulture, Translation and Cognition, ed. Peter Hanenberg, Lisbon: Universidade CatolicaEditora, 85-104.
  • [2] The quote echoes Hayden White’s assertion that “the historian confronts a veritablechaos of events already constituted, out of which he must choose the elements of thestory he would tell. He makes his story by including some events and excluding others, by stressing some and subordinating others. This process of exclusion, stress, andsubordination is carried out in the interest of constituting a story of a particular kind”(Historical Imagination 6).
  • [3] No wonder, then, that Freud was so suspicious of biography: “Anyone turning biographer has committed himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and evento hiding his own lack of understanding: for biographical truth is not to be had, and ifit were, it couldn’t be useful” (Freud, letter to Arnold Zweig, on 31 May 1936: 426).
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