I calmly listen to this distant melody, I look, from high up, at all these men, all these souls still walking around us: who was Liszt, who was Berlioz, who was Wagner and all the people they knew, Musset, Lamartine, Nerval, an immense network of texts, notes and images, clear, precise, a path visible by me alone that links old Hammer-Purgstall to a whole world of travellers, musicians, poets, that links Beethoven to Balzac, to James Morier, to Hofmannsthal, to Strauss, to Mahler, and to the sweet smoke of Istanbul and Tehran…
So reports Franz Ritter, the narrator of Mathias Enard’s latest novel Compass, ostensibly describing the imaginative vantage point given by his first taste of opium. He could, however, equally be describing Enard’s project throughout this extraordinary book, recently translated into English by Charlotte Mandell, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and New Directions in the US. Compass takes place over the course of one night, as the insomniac, and possibly mortally ill, musicologist Ritter reflects on the history of Orientalism. Or perhaps it would be better to say he refracts, taking the ideas and stories of writers and thinkers who came before him and organising them into new patterns. It is a tapestry of other texts, anecdotes, and pieces of music: many of which are today in the public domain. So, as we did previously with W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, we thought we’d share some of the original texts with you, next to Mathias Enard’s (that is to say, Franz Ritter’s) meditations on them.
If Compass has a thesis, it might be that the Orient is a co-constructed imaginative realm, one built by the "East" and "West" in tandem, and with boundaries, both psychological and geographical, which are ever-shifting and porous. Ritter’s stream-of-consciousness is steeped in the voices of people for whom the Orient truly meant something, and his mind often roams in a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world revolutionized by the meeting of East and West: "this exoticism had meaning… over all of Europe the wind of alterity blows, all these great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self, to bastardize it, for genius wants bastardy…" These literary echoes throughout Compass, then, are more than just name-dropping: they indicate that the cosmopolitan mind is teeming with cultural referents, permeable and open to influence from without. It is this cosmopolitanism which Enard celebrates.
Note: Franz Ritter is, as already noted, a musicologist, and Enard mentions many musicians whose work we haven’t linked to here, because most good recordings are still within copyright. But we would recommend these as a good soundtrack to your reading: Shahram Nazeri, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pal Esterhazy, Arvo Part, Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, August von Adelburg Abramovic, Karol Szymanowski, Felicien David, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Georges Bizet, Franz Schubert.
The works featured below are in the order in which they appear in the book. Where possible the English translations of the non-English works are featured, with links to originals given below. The dates in the subheadings refer to the first publication of the original text, or translation if that is the primary focus. The Enard quotes are from the English translation by Charlotte Mandell, and page numbers from the rather fetching edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions, which came out earlier this year.
…Hainfeld, the home of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, first great Austrian Orientalist, translator of the Thousand and One Nights and of Hafez’s Divan, historian of the Ottoman Empire, friend of Silvestre de Sacy and of anyone that the little band of Orientalists counted as members at the time, designated sole heir of a very aged Styrian aristocrat who had bequeathed him her title and this castle in 1835, the largest Wasserschloss in the region; Hammer-Purgstall, teacher of Friedrich Rückert, to whom he taught Persian in Vienna, and with whom he translated extracts from Rumi’s Divan-e Shams, a link between a forgotten château in Styria and the Kindertotenlieder, which joins Mahler to the poetry of Hafez and the Orientalists of the nineteenth century. (p. 36)
Did you know that Hainfeld castle also houses monsters and wonders? Of course it’s the home of Hammer-Purgstall the Orientalist, but it’s also the place that inspired Sheridan Le Fanu to write his novel Carmilla, the first vampire story that would make British high society tremble, decades before Dracula… Sheridan Le Fanu spent an entire winter in Hainfeld, a few years before Hammer-Purgstall the Orientalist moved there; Carmilla is inspired by a true story, she says: Count Purgstall did indeed take in one of his orphan relatives named Carmilla, who immediately struck up a profound friendship with his daughter Laura, as if they had always known each other – very soon, they became intimate; they shared secrets and passions. Laura began to dream about fantastic animals that visited her at night, kissed her and caressed her; sometimes, in these dreams, they transformed into Carmilla, until finally Laura wondered if Carmilla was actually a man in disguise, which would explain her agitation. Laura fell ill with a wasting disease that no doctor managed to cure, until the Count heard tell of a similar case, a few miles away: several years before, a young woman died, two round holes in the upper part of her throat, victim of the vampire Millarca Karnstein. Carmilla is none other than the anagram and reincarnation of Millarca; she is the one sucking out Laura’s vitality – the Count would have to kill her and send her back to the grave by a terrifying ritual. (pp. 41 / 43)
…Balzac, who in theory felt passionate only about the French and their customs, writing a text on opium – one of his first published texts, at that. Balzac, the first French novelist to include a text in Arabic in one of his novels! Balzac the native of Tours who becomes friends with Hammer-Purgstall the great Austrian Orientalist, even dedicating one of his books to him, The Cabinet of Antiquities. (p. 98)
Victor Hugo the Oriental relates the dying agony of Balzac in Things Seen: M. de Balzac was in his bed, he says, his head resting on a pile of pillows to which they had added red Damascus cushions borrowed from the bedroom sofa. His face was purple, almost black, leaning to the right, beard unshaven, hair grey and cut short, eyes open and staring. An unbearable odour emanated from the bed. Hugo lifted the blanket and took Balzac’s hand. It was covered in sweat. He squeezed it. Balzac did not respond to the pressure. An old woman – standing guard – and a male servant stood on either side of the bed. A candle was burning on a table behind the head of the bed, another on a commode near the door. A silver vase was placed on the bedside table. The man and the woman remained silent with a kind of terror, listening to the dying man groaning noisily, Mme Hanska had gone back to her room, no doubt because she couldn’t bear her husband’s death rattle, his agony: Hugo relates all sorts of horrors about the abscess on Balzac’s leg, which had been lanced a few days before. (p. 117)
Our camp was much more spartan than those of the explorers of old: they say that Lady Hester Stanhope, first queen of Tadmor, proud English adventuress with steely morals, whose wealth and health the Orient sucked away until her death in 1839 in a village in the Lebanese mountains, needed seven camels to carry her equipment, and that the tent where she received the emirs of the land was by far the most sumptuous in all of Syria; legend has it that, along with her chamber pot (the only indispensable accessory in the desert, she said), the niece of William Pitt transported a gala dinner to Palmyra, a royal dinner where the most refined china and place settings were taken out of the trunks, to the great surprise of the guests; all the sheikhs and emirs in the land were dazzled by Lady Hester Stanhope, they say. (pp. 166–167)
Mardrus translated the entirety of The Thousand and One Nights at sea; he grew up in Cairo, studied medicine in Beirut, Arabic was so to speak his native language, that’s the big advantage he has over us western-born Orientalists, all that time spent learning the language that he saved. The discovery of the Nights in Mardrus’ translation provoked a wave of adaptations, imitations, continuations of the masterpiece, just like fifty years earlier with Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, Rückert’s poems or Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan. This time people thought it was the Orient itself that breathed its force, its eroticism, its exotic power directly into turn-of-the-century art; they loved the sensuality, the violence, the pleasure, the adventures, the monsters and djinns, they copied them, commented on them, multiplied them; they thought they could finally see, without any intermediary, the true face of the eternal and mysterious Orient: but in fact it’s the Orient of Mardrus, still a reflection, another Third-Orient… (p. 232)
Featured above is the fifteenth and final volume of Mardrus' translation. See scans of the others here at the Internet Archive, though be warned they are courtesy of Google and so are a little lacking in quality, including whole missing portions of pages.
Wagner read Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation in September 1854, just when he was starting to imagine Tristan and Isolde. There is a chapter on love in The World As Will and Representation. Schopenhauer never loved anyone as much as his dog Atma, a Sanskritish dog with the name of the soul. They say that Schopenhauer named his dog as sole heir, I wonder if that’s true… I don’t much remember Schopenhauer’s theories on love any more. I think he separates love as illusion linked to sexual desire on the one hand and universal love, compassion, on the other. I wonder what Wagner made of it. There must be hundreds of pages written on Schopenhauer and Wagner and I haven’t read any. Sometimes life is hopeless. (p. 249)
Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, sworn enemies of Wagner, especially Meyerbeer, object of all Wagner’s hatred, a terrifying hatred… Wagner wasn’t without his contradictions: in his Judaism in Music, he insults Meyerbeer, the same Meyerbeer he had buttered up for years, the same Meyerbeer he dreamed of imitating, the same Meyerbeer who helped him put on Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman…Richard Wagner did not measure up to his work; he was hypocritical, like all anti-Semites. But Wagner is not stupid, hence he is operating in bad faith. He is aware that his statements are idiotic. It’s his hatred speaking. He is blinded by his hatred, as he will be by his wife Cosima Liszt during the re-publication of his pamphlet, this time under his own name, twenty years later. Wagner is a criminal. A criminal full of hate. (p. 296)
Khayyam, propelled by Edward FitzGerald’s translation, invaded literary Europe; the forgotten mathematician from the province of Khorassan became a leading European poet in 1870. Sarah explained Omar Khayyam’s immense worldwide fame by the universal simplicity of the quatrain form, first of all, and then by the diversity of the corpus: by turns atheist/agnostic or Muslim/hedonist or contemplative lover/inveterate drunkard or mystical drinker, the scholar from Khorassan, as he appears in a thousand or so quatrains that are attributed to him, has something to please everyone… (pp. 409-410).