18 December 2008

Dante's in Queneau

For years I was convinced that the translator into English of Raymond Queneau's Exercises de Style -- which I've owned a copy of since (so my inscription in the flyleaf tells me) 1998 -- was the same person as Dorothy L. Sayers's god-daughter and biographer, who finished Sayers's mammoth and magisterial translation of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy after her death.

I appear to have thought this because a) I knew Sayers's translator friend was called Barbara, and b) I had a vague feeling I knew the name Barbara Wright from somewhere.


I've discovered my error since my friend J-P Stacey -- whose self-published collections A Pocketful of Lies and Stones and Bones I've noted approvingly in past years -- embarked on an eccentric project of adapting Queneau's eccentric book in the medium of song.

Quenau's original Exercises in Style (to use the English title) tells the same inconsequential story of two men on a bus 99 times in different styles. The basic concept's already been adapted to a different medium in the graphic anthology 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by comic book writer / artist Matt Madden.

In turn, J-P's elected to give the traditional drinking song "Show Me the Way to Go Home" a similar treatment by rewriting it in each of the 99 styles employed by Quenau, ensuring -- this being the killer -- that each version is singable to the same tune as the original. Admittedly it's a reasonably flexible meter, but it's still an admirably deranged ambition.

J-P's been web-publishing some of these versions as an online Advent Calendar, enabling you to read (so far) some 17 variant versions, plus a stray adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner written to the same meter. He's helpfully provided sound files to demonstrate how they should be sung. You can also order a print copy, my particular one of which arrived with me this morning.

I have to admit that I rather prefer J-P's short stories that are actually about stuff, but Exercises in Song is still a highly entertaining project. I'm particularly fond of "Telegraphic", "Official Letter" and one from the book which hasn't appeared online yet, "Cross-examination". [Edit: It has now, so I've added the link...] The Anglo-Saxon version's rather good too.

In honour of the three extra "Literary Classics" exercises incorporated in the print version -- and of my own aforementioned confusion -- I decided to attempt a one-off exercise of my own. I make no claims as to its artistic merits (especially relative to J-P's fractal efforts), but thought I might as well reproduce it here:

Divine Comedy

Great poet, lead me out
of this dark allegorical copse.
I tried to medicate my mid-life crisis with beer --
now I'll abandon all my hops.

Now no matter where we pass,
from Malebolgia to Mars,
you will always hear me praising the love
that moves the sun and all the stars.

I thank yew.

[Edit to add: I'm not sure whether this alternative second stanza is better or not:
Now no matter where we are,
in Inf. or Purg. or Par.,
you will always hear me singing of love
that moves the sun and every star.]

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