Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 36

Occupations — Traduttore traditore — Ode to the Mist — Apple and pear — Reviewing — Current literature — Oxford-like manner — A plain story — Ill-regulated mind — Unsnuffed candle — Strange dreams.

I compiled the Chronicles of Newgate; I reviewed books for the Review established on an entirely new principle; and I occasionally tried my best to translate into German portions of the publisher’s philosophy. In this last task I experienced more than one difficulty. I was a tolerable German scholar, it is true, and I had long been able to translate from German into English with considerable facility; but to translate from a foreign language into your own is a widely different thing from translating from your own into a foreign language; and, in my first attempt to render the publisher into German, I was conscious of making miserable failures, from pure ignorance of German grammar; however, by the assistance of grammars and dictionaries, and by extreme perseverance, I at length overcame all the difficulties connected with the German language. But, alas! another difficulty remained, far greater than any connected with German — a difficulty connected with the language of the publisher — the language which the great man employed in his writings was very hard to understand; I say in his writings — for his colloquial English was plain enough. Though not professing to be a scholar, he was much addicted, when writing, to the use of Greek and Latin terms, not as other people used them, but in a manner of his own, which set the authority of dictionaries at defiance; the consequence was that I was sometimes utterly at a loss to understand the meaning of the publisher. Many a quarter of an hour did I pass at this period, staring at periods of the publisher, and wondering what he could mean, but in vain, till at last, with a shake of the head, I would snatch up the pen, and render the publisher literally into German. Sometimes I was almost tempted to substitute something of my own for what the publisher had written, but my conscience interposed; the awful words, Traduttore traditore, commenced ringing in my ears, and I asked myself whether I should be acting honourably towards the publisher, who had committed to me the delicate task of translating him into German; should I be acting honourably towards him, in making him speak in German in a manner different from that in which he expressed himself in English? No, I could not reconcile such conduct with any principle of honour; by substituting something of my own in lieu of these mysterious passages of the publisher, I might be giving a fatal blow to his whole system of philosophy. Besides, when translating into English, had I treated foreign authors in this manner? Had I treated the minstrels of the Kaempe Viser in this manner? — No. Had I treated Ab Gwilym in this manner? Even when translating his Ode to the Mist, in which he is misty enough, had I attempted to make Ab Gwilym less misty? No; on referring to my translation, I found that Ab Gwilym in my hands was quite as misty as in his own. Then, seeing that I had not ventured to take liberties with people who had never put themselves into my hands for the purpose of being rendered, how could I venture to substitute my own thoughts and ideas for the publisher’s, who had put himself into my hands for that purpose? Forbid it every proper feeling! — so I told the Germans, in the publisher’s own way, the publisher’s tale of an apple and a pear.

I at first felt much inclined to be of the publisher’s opinion with respect to the theory of the pear. After all, why should the earth be shaped like an apple, and not like a pear? — it would certainly gain in appearance by being shaped like a pear. A pear being a handsomer fruit than an apple, the publisher is probably right, thought I, and I will say that he is right on this point in the notice which I am about to write of his publication for the Review. And yet I don’t know — said I, after a long fit of musing — I don’t know but what there is more to be said for the Oxford theory. The world may be shaped like a pear, but I don’t know that it is; but one thing I know, which is, that it does not taste like a pear; I have always liked pears, but I don’t like the world. The world to me tastes much more like an apple, and I have never liked apples. I will uphold the Oxford theory — besides, I am writing in an Oxford Review, and am in duty bound to uphold the Oxford theory. So in my notice I asserted that the world was round; I quoted Scripture, and endeavoured to prove that the world was typified by the apple in Scripture, both as to shape and properties. ‘An apple is round,’ said I, ‘and the world is round — the apple is a sour, disagreeable fruit; and who has tasted much of the world without having his teeth set on edge?’ I, however, treated the publisher, upon the whole, in the most urbane and Oxford-like manner; complimenting him upon his style, acknowledging the general soundness of his views, and only differing with him in the affair of the apple and pear.

I did not like reviewing at all — it was not to my taste; it was not in my way; I liked it far less than translating the publisher’s philosophy, for that was something in the line of one whom a competent judge had surnamed Lavengro. I never could understand why reviews were instituted; works of merit do not require to be reviewed, they can speak for themselves, and require no praising; works of no merit at all will die of themselves, they require no killing. The Review to which I was attached was, as has been already intimated, established on an entirely new plan; it professed to review all new publications, which certainly no Review had ever professed to do before, other Reviews never pretending to review more than one-tenth of the current literature of the day. When I say it professed to review all new publications, I should add, which should be sent to it; for, of course, the Review would not acknowledge the existence of publications, the authors of which did not acknowledge the existence of the Review. I don’t think, however, that the Review had much cause to complain of being neglected; I have reason to believe that at least nine-tenths of the publications of the day were sent to the Review, and in due time reviewed. I had good opportunity of judging — I was connected with several departments of the Review, though more particularly with the poetical and philosophic ones. An English translation of Kant’s philosophy made its appearance on my table the day before its publication. In my notice of this work I said that the English shortly hoped to give the Germans a quid pro quo. I believe at that time authors were much in the habit of publishing at their own expense. All the poetry which I reviewed appeared to be published at the expense of the authors. If I am asked how I comported myself, under all circumstances, as a reviewer — I answer, — I did not forget that I was connected with a Review established on Oxford principles, the editor of which had translated Quintilian. All the publications which fell under my notice I treated in a gentlemanly and Oxford-like manner, no personalities — no vituperation — no shabby insinuations; decorum, decorum was the order of the day. Occasionally a word of admonition, but gently expressed, as an Oxford undergraduate might have expressed it, or master of arts. How the authors whose publications were consigned to my colleagues were treated by them I know not; I suppose they were treated in an urbane and Oxford-like manner, but I cannot say; I did not read the reviewals of my colleagues, I did not read my own after they were printed. I did not like reviewing.

Of all my occupations at this period I am free to confess I liked that of compiling the Newgate Lives and Trials the best; that is, after I had surmounted a kind of prejudice which I originally entertained. The trials were entertaining enough; but the lives — how full were they of wild and racy adventures, and in what racy, genuine language were they told! What struck me most with respect to these lives was the art which the writers, whoever they were, possessed of telling a plain story. It is no easy thing to tell a story plainly and distinctly by mouth; but to tell one on paper is difficult indeed, so many snares lie in the way. People are afraid to put down what is common on paper, they seek to embellish their narratives, as they think, by philosophic speculations and reflections; they are anxious to shine, and people who are anxious to shine can never tell a plain story. ‘So I went with them to a music booth, where they made me almost drunk with gin, and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand,’ says, or is made to say, Henry Simms, executed at Tyburn some seventy years before the time of which I am speaking. I have always looked upon this sentence as a masterpiece of the narrative style, it is so concise and yet so very clear. As I gazed on passages like this, and there were many nearly as good in the Newgate lives, I often sighed that it was not my fortune to have to render these lives into German rather than the publisher’s philosophy — his tale of an apple and pear.

Mine was an ill-regulated mind at this period. As I read over the lives of these robbers and pickpockets, strange doubts began to arise in my mind about virtue and crime. Years before, when quite a boy, as in one of the early chapters I have hinted, I had been a necessitarian; I had even written an essay on crime (I have it now before me, penned in a round boyish hand), in which I attempted to prove that there is no such thing as crime or virtue, all our actions being the result of circumstances or necessity. These doubts were now again reviving in my mind; I could not, for the life of me, imagine how, taking all circumstances into consideration, these highwaymen, these pickpockets, should have been anything else than highwaymen and pickpockets; any more than how, taking all circumstances into consideration, Bishop Latimer (the reader is aware that I had read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) should have been anything else than Bishop Latimer. I had a very ill-regulated mind at that period.

My own peculiar ideas with respect to everything being a lying dream began also to revive. Sometimes at midnight, after having toiled for hours at my occupations, I would fling myself back on my chair, look about the poor apartment, dimly lighted by an unsnuffed candle, or upon the heaps of books and papers before me, and exclaim, — ‘Do I exist? Do these things, which I think I see about me, exist, or do they not? Is not everything a dream — a deceitful dream? Is not this apartment a dream — the furniture a dream? The publisher a dream — his philosophy a dream? Am I not myself a dream — dreaming about translating a dream? I can’t see why all should not be a dream; what’s the use of the reality?’ And then I would pinch myself, and snuff the burdened smoky light. ‘I can’t see, for the life of me, the use of all this; therefore why should I think that it exists? If there was a chance, a probability, of all this tending to anything, I might believe; but — ’ and then I would stare and think, and after some time shake my head and return again to my occupations for an hour or two; and then I would perhaps shake, and shiver, and yawn, and look wistfully in the direction of my sleeping apartment; and then, but not wistfully, at the papers and books before me; and sometimes I would return to my papers and books; but oftener I would arise, and, after another yawn and shiver, take my light, and proceed to my sleeping chamber.

They say that light fare begets light dreams; my fare at that time was light enough; but I had anything but light dreams, for at that period I had all kind of strange and extravagant dreams, and amongst other things I dreamt that the whole world had taken to dog-fighting; and that I, myself, had taken to dog-fighting, and that in a vast circus I backed an English bulldog against the bloodhound of the Pope of Rome.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32