Originals, translations & other misdemeanours

Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow, Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.

John Donne (85)

Up to this point, we have read The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach in the terms set by the text itself, i.e., as a little chronicle of Magdalena Bach dedicated “to all who love Johann Sebastian Bach”. Divided into seven parts, the narrative is a long flashback into Bach’s life, the timeline being generally organised in a chronological fashion. Macrotextually, the text is very simple, in tune with the purpose stated in the title - it propounds to be a little chronicle. Not a biography, naturally, as that would create quite different expectations regarding authorship and gender. The title, therefore, is the first indicator of textual fragility, reinforced by the dedication (“To all who love Johann Sebastian Bach”) that leaves no room for speculation as to the book’s intent: this is a labour of love, not intellect. It is only fitting, then, that the authorship is at best diffuse but always “feminine”. Both effacement and feminization are strategies consonant with what appears to be the overall design of the book: to erect a literary lieu de memoire for Bach.

The most striking feature of the 1925 edition was that both the cover and the frontispice chose to omit any reference to an author, thereby allowing the function of the author to be taken up by the 1st person narrator: Anna Magdalena herself. While it is true the book claimed to be nothing more than a little chronicle of (not by) Magdalena Bach, the preposition did little to undo the misconception regarding authorship. This is hardly surprising as every other sign in the book pointed to the fundamental matrix of the text: this was an intimate account of the everyday life of a great man; a personal chronicle, rather than a scholarly biography, with a register both more familiar and less austere, more connotative than denotative in tone and emphasis than traditional biographies; a “feminine” narrative, hence private (and “little”), sentimental and obviously partial.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it was the promise of domesticity that would attract readers, and construe Bach as a popular icon, (re)defining him as an absolute genius which, in the book, equals pure virtue: not only is Johann Sebastian a great composer, he is also a good man.

The book was a success in Europe. In Germany alone it sold approximately 300,000 copies from 1930 to 1940. Thus, for two or three generations, the images produced by the little chronicle came to represent the true Bach, a truth directly inferred from the 1st person narration. Correspondingly, the novel is authenticated as biography by a three-tiered mise en scene. By leaving the classic locus of authorship empty, the agents involved in the production of the book (writer and editor) invited the conclusion that the “original” is a manuscript written by Anna Magdalena. And, if the text was authored by the narrator, it followed that the English text must necessarily be a translation from German. This impression was further compounded by a series of microtextual strategies designed to make the reader believe s/he is reading a translation. We name but three:

First, the narrative discourse is consistently simple and humble as befits a narrator whose right to tell the story seems to reside in a knowledge arising out of love: “I do not think Sebastian was a very easy person to know - unless you loved him. Had I not loved him from almost the very first I certainly would never have understood him” (Meynell, Little Chronicle 49). Further on, she insists that it is “[s]mall wonder that I loved him so much and waited on his looks and words, storing them up in my heart” (ibid. 72). Love, then, is the gesture behind all knowledge, narration and, ideally, reading.

The trope of humbleness and simplicity may serve a double rhetorical strategy in the text. On the one hand, it results from the ruse of presenting Anna Magdalena as the author - thus, the narrator’s gender is performed in and through narration, depicting female language as both sentimental and domestic; on the other, it emphasizes a long-standing analogy between women and translations, in which translation is “feminized” (Simon 1) and downgraded at a stroke.

Second, germanisms abound in the text - and if “Cantor” and “Cappellmeister” were perhaps unavoidable, “Schule” and “Herr” were not, just to name a couple of examples. This decision is further enhanced by recourse to 18th-century ortog- raphy and to capitalisation when it comes to words such as “Organ”. Examples abound in the text, but I will just quote three:

One of the things that deeply impressed my father in Herr Bach’s Organ-playing was his stillness and ease... (ibid. 7)

The Cantor’s House was part of the Thomas Schule. (ibid. 72)

It is notorious that my predecessors, Herren Schelle and Kuhnau, were obliged to call in the assistance of students when they wanted to give a musical performance that should be complete and melodious. (ibid. 88-89)

And, last but not least, small mistakes intrude on the text, subtly creating the illusion that narrator and author are one. Well-Tempered Clavichord (“he [Heinrich] rapidly progressed to the ‘Well-Tempered Clavichord’” [ibid. 109]) and Passion according to St. John (ibid. 159) are but two instances of this strategy which display a carelessness that may be read as revealing great familiarity with the work and signalling a casual narrator, less concerned with exactness than with truth.

The ruse worked, and many generations have read the sentimental chronicle as a biography, and shaped their emotional response to Bach after the imaginary account supposedly written by his second wife.

While hardly interesting by contemporary literary standards, the text posits challenging questions regarding genre, gender, translatory and (broadly speaking) cultural issues, one of the most peculiar being the entangled matter of authority and authorship. In fact, authority is gained here by erasing any sign of external authorship and inviting the reader to believe the author is no other than Anna Magdalena Bach herself.

Through this strategy and a clever understanding of the power of language in translation, the book manages to manipulate the reader’s expectations of both biography and translation, and effectively creates a pseudotranslation and a false biography.

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