Meynell, Anna Magdalena & Human Fragility

Although you do not heed; the long, sad years Still pass, and I still scatter flowers frail And whisper words of love which no one hears.

Amy Lowell, “Aftermath” (20)

While it is perhaps safe to assume that The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach was initially designed to be a monument to definitiveness, the success of its omissions and commissions showcases that movement inhabits all discourse, and narratives are often a labyrinth of translations of translations of translations. Thus, translat- ability becomes the sign par excellence of life writings in the sense that the latter is “mimicry, repetition which redoubles as it crosses back and forth through the mirror, a logic of disruptive excess in which nothing is ever posited that is not also reversed” (Godard 90). Perpetually negotiating the liminal space between fact and fiction, biography is, in its nature, bound by the dream of translatability from the verifiable world into narrative - this movement implies selection, organisation and interpretation.[1] Of course, as Wolfgang Iser has pointed out, interpretation is always already “an act of translation” (5). As such, The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach as a successful pseudotranslation increases exponentially the translatability factor of discourse. Albeit sentimental and conservative in tone and inclination, its publication and circulation processes and paths are fluid to the extreme, evincing a patent disregard for established notions of “authorship”, “originality” and “translation”.

Curiously, this is strangely in consonance with the prevailing concept of art prior to Romanticism and finds an interesting echo in a moment in the narrative which may shed some light on the topics being discussed in this article: creativity appears as a countersign to originality.

Sebastian’s own gifts in filling out parts and improvising were, of course, of an extraordinary nature, and only to be properly appreciated by those who were themselves trained musicians. If a figured bass part was put before him when he was at the clavier or Organ, he would instantly play a full trio or quartet from it. But this was generally when he had already played some music by one of his favourite composers, which always stimulated his mind. (Meynell, Little Chronicle 113-114)

This instance of “anxiety of influence” (Bloom) displays an understanding of art as shared space in which originality is perceived not so much as a breach and/or breakthrough but as a result of the familiarity with what came before. At this point, the chronicle decidedly discusses what it, to some extent, does: the imbrication with the past, and other discursive and artistic practices, texts, and artists that shapes every art work, the creator’s ambivalent acceptance of genre and traditions, the playfulness with readers’ expectations.

Both the life and the afterlife of The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach are resonant of the social and historical contexts which permeate and shape literature. The history of its translations may well reveal the extent to which readers yearn for the “authentic” authority and authorship. If indeed fiction “brings about a simultaneity of what is mutually exclusive” (Iser 941), then “fictitious” translations - particularly when they engage in the semblance of biography - may be defined as texts that, unlike all other literary works, fail to “contain a whole series of conventionalised signposts which indicate to the reader that their language is not discourse but ‘staged discourse, thus indicating that what is said or written should only be taken as if it were referring to something, whereas in actual fact all the references are bracketed and only serve as guidelines for what is to be imagined” (ibid. 941-942). I.e., fictitious translations may be said to represent the acme of fiction, a kind of heightened fiction, as they “masquerade” several times over: as literature, as translations, and, in the specific case discussed here, as biography (i.e., truth). In this respect, The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach

embodies the structure of “double meaning” purported by Iser, as it “takes on the form of simultaneous concealment and revelation, always saying something that is different from what it means in order to adumbrate something that oversteps what it refers to” (ibid. 945). The overstepping relates mainly to fiction of translation, which plays constantly with the presence/absence of an author who may or may not be the storyteller.

The phenomenon of Meynell’s Little Chronicle and particularly its afterlife in the form of different translations demand further inquiry. The multiple narratives that have resulted of a counterfeit showcase how originality is perhaps not the stuff of the artist as a demiurge, but a sign of our common, if fragile, dreams, and as such may shed light on the complex interplay of literature and translation.

To be continued

  • [1] It should be pointed out that interpretation already underlies the processes of selection and organisation. Sequentiality as articulation is, I argue, not simply a matter ofchronology but the result of an interpretive gesture: I choose to see this as the consequence of that, rather than as random events. In so doing, I am both interpreting andproducing a narrative.
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