Friday, January 14, 2011

Finds (5): The Ocean of Story


Penzer, N. M., ed. The Ocean of Story: Being C. H. Tawney’s Translation of Somadeva’s Kathā Sarit Sāgara (or Ocean of Streams of Story). 1880-84. 10 vols. 1924. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.


In 1974 Lawrence Durrell published a novel entitled Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness, the first volume of his ‘Avignon Quintet’ (1974-84). When I first read it (sometime in the late seventies, I suppose), I was very struck by a passage where a character named Robin Sutcliffe went ‘[w]andering in the older part of the town, near the market’:

I found a few barrowloads of books for sale, among them a very old life of Petrarch (MDCC LXXXII) which I riffled and browsed through in the public gardens of Doms ... I was not so hard-hearted as not to feel a quickening of sympathy at the words of the old anonymous biographer of the poet ...

Le Lundi de la Semaine Sainte, à six heures du matin, Pétrarque vit à Avignon, dans l’église des Réligieuses de Sainte-Claire une jeune femme dont la robe verte était parsemée de violettes. Sa beauté le frappa. C’était Laure.

- Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness, 1974 (London: Faber, 1976): 228-30.

I'd translate the passage roughly as follows:

On Monday of Holy Week, at six o'clock in the morning, Petrarch saw at Avignon, in the Church of the Nuns of Saint Claire, a young woman whose green dress was strewn with violets. Her beauty struck him. It was Laura.

I wondered at the time if Durrell had made up the passage himself, so well did it seem to fit the circumstances of his novel (not least the curious coincidence of Laura’s having been a ‘de Sade’, admittedly only by marriage).


Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness (1974)

Ten or so years later, in 1990, I was browsing on the bookstall run by my friend Gus Maclean in the basement of the David Hume Tower of the University of Edinburgh, when I came across a small book roughly bound in blue paper, with a tiny label, ‘Vie de Pétrarque’, pasted on its spine. The price was modest, only a pound. It was more from a feeling of serendipity than with any real expectation of success that I started to leaf through it (the pages which had been cut, at any rate), looking for Durrell’s paragraph. But there it was! On pp. 20-21:

Le lundi de la semaine-sainte, à six heures du matin, Pétrarque vit à Avignon, dans l’église des religieuses de Sainte-Claire, une jeune femme dont la robe verte était parsemée de violettes. Sa beauté le frappa: c’était Laure.

The punctuation was a bit different – as was the date – and yet the wording was the same.

The book I had purchased was described on its title-page as:

Vie de Pétrarque, Publiée par l’Athénée de Vaucluse, Augmentée de la première traduction qui ait parut en Français, de la Lettre adressée à la Posterité par ce Poète célèbre: Avec la liste des Souscripteurs qui ont concouru à lui faire ériger un Monument à Vaucluse, le jour seculaire de sa naissance, 20 Juillet 1804, 1er Thermidor an 12. Avignon: Chez Me. Ve. Seguin, 1804.

[Life of Petrarch, Published by the Athenaeum of Vaucluse, Augmented by the first translation to appear in French of the Letter addressed to Posterity by the celebrated Poet: With the list of subscribers who have agreed to build a monument to him at Vaucluse, on the anniversary of his birth, 20th July, 1804, 1st Thermidor, Year 12. Avignon: Available at M. V. Seguin's, 1804.]

The French Revolutionary dates ("1st Thermidor, Year 12") gave an extra touch of interest - Napoleon cancelled the new calendar a couple of years later, in 1806 - but the important point was that the anonymous preface to the book explained that this life had been composed by a certain ‘Abbé Roman’, who would undoubtedly have been pressed to join their literary society if he had not already been dead at the date of its foundation, and that ‘various slight blemishes, including a false date of birth for the Italian poet, and some printing errors, have been corrected ... We have also suppressed certain passages which seemed to impede the course of the narrative with digressions which were foreign to it’ (pp.v-vi, my translation). Perhaps these ‘slight blemishes’ included the rather more effective punctuation attributed to the passage by Durrell.

The coincidence is, admittedly, rather a trivial one. After all, how many eighteenth-century Lives of the poet Petrarch in French can there be? From my point of view, though, the point is that I was actually thinking of the passage in Durrell’s novel when I made my own find.

I learnt one more thing from my new book. It included a footnote, certifying the precision of the date – ‘Cette époque est sûre, nous la tenons de Pétrarque’ [this date is certain, we have it from Petrarch] – with an allusion to his sonnet, which I had never read before, beginning: ‘Voglia mi sprona, Amor mi guida et scorge’:

Vertute, Honor, Bellezza, atto gentile,
dolci parole ai be’ rami m’àn giunto
ove soavemente il cor s’invesca.

Mille trecento ventisette, a punto
su l’ora prima, il dí sesto d’aprile,
nel laberinto intrai, né veggio ond’esca.


- Francesco Petrarca, Canzoniere, ed. Gianfranco Contini, 3rd ed. (Torino: Einaudi, 1968): 272.

[Virtue, Honour, Beauty, a noble manner, soft words attached me to those laurel branches where my heart was so easily ensnared. In 1327, at the hour of Prime, on the 6th of April, I entered the labyrinth, nor can I see any way out.]







The Ocean of Story: Being C. H. Tawney’s Translation of Somadeva’s Kathā Sarit Sāgara (or Ocean of Streams of Story), 1880-84. Edited with Introduction, Fresh Explanatory Notes and Terminal Essay by N. M. Penzer, 10 vols, 1924 (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968)


As an undergraduate, I was always looking for a quiet place to study in Auckland University Library. One of my favourite haunts was down on the first floor where they stored all the fairytale and folklore books. A complete ten-volume set of Somadeva's Ocean of the Streams of Story was among them, and I used to admire it with a kind of hopeless longing, never dreaming I'd one day own a copy myself.

I have to say that (at the time) it defeated my attempts to read it, though I had rather more success with their beautiful 12-volume "library edition" of Burton's Arabian Nights (albeit with all the really saucy bits cut out ...)

There was just something so delightful in the idea of an Ocean into which all the streams of story flowed which kept it in my mind, though (and, apparently, Salman Rushdie's. His 1990 children's book Haroun and the Sea of Stories is clearly inspired by Somadeva's title).

The only commentator I could find who had an opinion on the work itself, though, was that indefatigable story-ophile John Barth, who included a brief essay called "The Ocean of Story" in his non-fiction collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction, 1984 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): 84-90 (coincidentally, he too first encountered the work on the shelves of a University Library).

In 2002, I was travelling in India with my friend, the filmmaker Gabriel White. His parents had a fairly extensive network of friends there, and so, when we got to Bangalore, we had the advice and assistance of Pad and Meera Padmanabhan on what to visit in the neighbourhood. Meera shared my love of books, and guided us to a particularly rewarding little shop somewhere near the city centre.

This is what I wrote in my diary at the time:

Wednesday, January 23

WHAT MY DAD CAN’T HAVE!
[girl on bike]
IT’S MINE!

Success! Mine at last! For 7500 rupees (– 1500 cash discount) + 450 postage (roughly $NZ300), at Premier books, The Ocean of Story – all 10 vols – still sealed in plastic – comes into my possession. Just in last month – a day later would have been too late – an American customer after it … Hurrah!

For me, this makes the whole trip worthwhile. I’ve been searching for over a decade, & yet somehow I knew that in a little shop, down a side-street, somewhere in India, I would find it.



It was waiting for me

Kathā Sarit Sāgara, Ocean
of the Streams of Story, saying:
At this hour, 7.45 p.m.
of the 31st day of travel (30 still to go)
between a camera & a dosa
in the moonlight (night falls faster here)
you open me forever


Only it wasn't quite so simple as that. Ten volumes of ponderous folklore add up to a less than agreeable travelling companion, so I decided that the only practical thing was to ask the shopkeeper to post it back to New Zealand for me.

Why not do it yourself, you ask? Well, mainly because I'd read a brief account in the Lonely Planet India describing exactly how one has to package things there to satisfy the Customs authorities (it involved leaving one end open for inspection, easily removable wax seals, and various other esoteric details). Better, I thought, to leave it to someone who did it every day.

You can't imagine how frustrating it was to get home from my trip and sit there waiting for my parcel to arrive. It took months! Then one parcel, with five volumes inside, turned up. After that the wait seemed to stretch into eternity. When it finally did arrive it was in a most deplorable state, with a little note specifying that it had had to be repackaged en route. Thus:




This was the address the guy had written on it:




Never mind. I immediately set to work reading the massive tomes. I guess I'd been subconsciously expecting it to be as tedious as various other works of ancient Indian fiction I'd embarked on (The Panchatantra, for instance), but actually it turned out - after one had struggled through a rather ponderous mythological introduction - to be extremely entertaining.

One surprise was just how carnal and unedifying most of the stories were: getting rich and getting laid (not necessarily in that order) seemed to be the only constant preoccupations of its many protagonists. It resembled the Decameron far more than the Buddhist Jātaka stories, with which I'd vaguely been associating it in my mind.

There are, mind you, other translations you can resort to if the sight of those ten large volumes still fills you with dread. They were compiled (though not translated) by Norman Penzer, Burton's bibliographer, in conscious imitation of the latter's classic ten-volume translation of the Arabian Nights, and have been padded out with a huge amount of random folklorist information and annotation. There's a perfectly adequate selection available through the Penguin Classics:


Somadeva. Tales from the Kathāsaritsāgara. Trans. Arshia Sattar. Foreword by Wendy Doniger. 1994. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.



Besides that, the only other complete translation I can recommend is Nalini Balbir's French one, available through the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. It lacks Penzer's maniacal annotations, but is far more up-to-date (and probably far more accurate, I'd imagine). It's also a lot more compact.

Somadeva. Océan des rivières de contes. Ed. Nalini Balbir, with Mildrède Besnard, Lucien Billoux, Sylvain Brocquet, Colette Caillat, Christine Chojnacki, Jean Fezas & Jean-Pierre Osier. Traduction des ‘Contes du Vampire’ par Louis & Marie-Simone Renou, 1963. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 438. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

For me, though, there will only ever be one Ocean of Story. It seized hold of me long before I ever got to India. Since entering that labyrinth, I no longer even aspire to finding a way out ...

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