Tzveta Sofronieva

Bulgaria

Tzveta Sofronieva is the author of twenty collections of poetry, short stories, essays and poetry translations. 

 

Born in Bulgaria in 1963 she settled in Berlin in 1992 but remained a frequent traveler. A physicist and historian of science by education, she has a doctorate in Philosophy in 1991 and attended a master class with Joseph Brodsky in 1992.  She has established intercultural and multimedial networks among which Forbidden Wordsand Auropolis Web Streaming Poetryand is editor of the collections of the same name.

 

Among her publications are the poetry collections “A Hand full of Water” (White Pine Press, 2012), “Landschaften, Ufer” “[“Landscapes, Shores”] (Hanser, 2013) and “Anthroposcene” (Hochroth, 2017) and the short stories collection “Diese Stadt kann auch weiss sein” (Schiler, 2010). Her work also encompasses literary installations, among which are Borrowed Pillows (Lille, France, 2011) and My Cyborg Identity(Boston, USA, 2012).  

 

Tzveta translates poetry from several languages. Her own poems and stories have been translated out of Bulgarian, English and German into French, English, Korean, Hungarian, Finnish, Dutch, Japanese, Serbian, Spanish and more. Her German poetry collection Eine Hand voll Wasserpublished in 2008, has been translated into English with a PEN American Translation Fund Award (2009). 

 

Tzveta Sofronieva has received the Poetry Award of the Bulgarian Academy of Science(1988) and the Adelberst-von-Chamisso Förderpreis (2009). She has been among others a Walther Rathenau Fellow in Berlin (1991) and a St. John's College Fellow in Cambridge, U.K. (1992), a Writer-in-Residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude near Stuttgart (1996), in KultutKontakt in Wien (2003), at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades/Los Angeles (2005) and in Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (2010). She has  been a Max Kade Writer in Residence in MIT, Boston and a recipient of the Cliff Becker Prize in Translation together with Chantal Wright in 2012.  


Tzveta Sofronieva’s “Über das Glück nach der Lektüre 

von Schopenhauer, in Kalifornien” (2007)

 

Chantal Wright

In: „Sophie Discovers Amerika: German-Speaking Women Write the New World (Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture)“, Boydell & Brewer Ltd.2014 

 

 

“Über das Glück nach der Lektüre von Schopenhauer, in Kalifornien” is a cycle of six poems by Bulgarian-German poet Tzveta Sofronieva, written in 2005 and first published in 2007 in the German literary journal Akzente. The cycle, prompted by the poet’s reading of Schopenhauer—perhaps the ultimate representative of European pessimism—during an extended stay in California, attempts to define happiness amid the surroundings of the New World, reflecting on the extent to which happiness can exist independently of place, and on the cultural and linguistic parameters of the concept of Glück. The first and last poems in the cycle, which consider, respectively, motherhood and language(s) as nomadic sources of happiness, act as a frame for an exploration of loci of happiness in the New World. The cycle always has an eye to the presence of the Old/old in the New/new and investigates the kinds of happiness afforded by America in all its complexity: the awesome natural beauty of Yosemite; the mode of life on a Navajo Indian reservation; the excesses of Hollywood; and—referencing Lion Feuchtwanger’s story “Venedig (Texas)” (1946)—the traces of the Italian Venezia in Los Angeles’s Venice Beach. This essay, after briefly contextualizing the cycle, will consider each of its constituent poems in turn to explore this relationship between happiness, language and place. 

            The physical circumstances surrounding the cycle’s creation and subsequent publication are not insignificant. Sofronieva, born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1963 and resident in Berlin since 1992, took her first serious steps to becoming a German exophonic poet—that is to say, a poet who is not a native speaker of German, but who adopts it as a literary language—in the United States, during a 2005 residency at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades. Since 1995, the Villa Aurora, former home of exiled German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta, has offered three-month residencies to writers, artists, and other creative practitioners from Germany, seeking to foster German-American exchange.

            Sofronieva’s residency at the Villa Aurora was not her first visit to North America, nor was this visit to California the beginning of her path as an exophonic writer. After leaving Bulgaria shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, in circumstances prompted by her involvement in political opposition activities, Sofronieva’s first port of call was Canada, where she attended that year’s PEN conference as a writer-in-exile. She then spent a period touring Canada and the United States as a guest lecturer: Sofronieva is a physicist and historian of science by training, and was in the middle of her doctoral studies in the year of the Wende. Her first collection of poems, which was published in 1992, after her return to Europe, bears an English title, Chicago Blues, referencing Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov’s To Chicago and Back, anaccount of his trip to the Chicago World Exhibition in 1893,andthus building on a tradition of Bulgarian fascination with North America. Chicago Bluescontains a number of poems written in English. Sofronieva’s relationship to the English language is inseparable from both her imagined and her lived experience of the New World as somebody who was raised in a Communist society:

For the longest time I equated English with freedom. It is a language which tells me that you are allowed to be as you are, you do not need to satisfy the interests of others, the expectations of others. I came to Canada at a time when there was Communism in Bulgaria and entered the U.S. on foot at Niagara Falls on a sunny day when the border guard looking at my Bulgarian passport smiled brightly and said: “Welcome to America”. It is not easy to forget this feeling even though I realize how naive it is. It was also the first time I was away from the patriarchal society of the Balkans—a border to Islam—for a longer period and I felt free emotionally, was curious about new ideas and lifestyles. English was a liberation. (Sofronieva 32-33)

 

Although Sofronieva now writes less frequently in English than she did in the early 1990s, her fascination with the New World, with its natural beauty, its literature and its society, has remained, and although the parameters of the Old World have shifted immeasurably since 1989, the relationship between the Old and the New is still a focus of exploration for the poet, as evidenced by the cycle under discussion here.

            The poems written at the Villa Aurora were published in Akzente(Heft 3/2007), the Hanser literary journal edited by German poet Michael Krüger. Although they were not the first of Sofronieva’s German poems to appear in Germany, their inclusion in Akzente signals the poet’s initiation into the German literary establishment. The Akzentepublication was followed in 2008 by a volume of German poetry entitled Eine Hand voll Wasser, and in 2009 the poet was awarded the Adelbert-von-Chamisso-Förderpreis, the smaller of the two Chamisso prizes, for her work to date. The Chamisso prizes, awarded annually since 1985 by Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung, are given to writers whose cultural background and/or mother tongue are not German; the prizes are a legacy of post-war labour migration to Germany and the resulting literary movement known as Gastarbeiterliteratur. Germany’s relationship with its immigrant population has frequently been troubled. It was not until the 1990s that legal reforms opened up German citizenship to those who were not ethnically German; dual citizenship remains impermissible at the time of writing for certain nationalities, and integration has only become a buzzword since the Merkel administration took office. Germany’s vibrant contemporary intercultural literature, authored by exophonic writers and native-speaker writers mit Migrationshintergrund(with a migrational background) alike, has its roots in the struggle for enfranchisement which gathered momentum in the 1980s, a struggle which was also waged on a literary front by groups such as PoLiKunst. The commercial and critical success of many of today’s intercultural writers—Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Rafik Schami, Yoko Tawada and Feridun Zaimoglu are among their ranks—belies the fact that, in the 1980s and even into the 1990s, exophonic writers often had great difficulty obtaining a foothold in the German literary establishment and that reception of their work continues to be marred by an inability on the part of critics to abandon entrenched categories and accept this writing as German literature. This context is relevant for a consideration of Sofronieva’s “Über das Glück” in so far as America, the immigrant country of new beginnings, allows the poet to deterritorialize the German language, liberated from the problems that exophonic writers often face in Germany, free to explore themes which are neither “Bulgarian” nor “Germanic,” yet still preoccupied with how a concept such as “happiness” is shaped by national perspectives and traditions.

            The first of the six poems, which considers the happiness of a mother, begins with the metaphor of time running in drops along rose petals.

1.

Längs der Rosen, inmitten ihrer Blätter, perlt die Zeit dahin.

Ob das Blatt nach dem Abpflücken noch ein Lebewesen ist?

Wunderbar sind die Kinder in dem Alter,

in dem sie nicht mehr Nägel kauen,

ihre Gesichter fein gezeichnet,

mit Haaren umrahmt und mit einem Lächeln,

das schon stolz das Abbild der Mona Lisa enthält.

Und es rollt die Zeit wie Laibe Brot und runde Fladen,

noch nicht verschimmelt am nächsten Morgen,

in der Schultaschezwischen den Heften eine Scheibe,

angebissen von bleibenden und Milchzähnen

harmonisch neben einander angeordnet.

Wunderbar ist das Heranwachsen –

neben dem spielenden Kätzchen ein Pferd aus Lava,

neben dem Plüschbär ein Tonkrieger aus Xian.

Herrlich, wunderbar ist das Berühren

der Rosenblätter, spitz und glatt, grün und rosa,

die Freude, zehn zu sein, geliebt, gesund

und in Frieden und in der Schule mit Freunden.

Was noch lässt sich sagen über das Glück einer Mutter?

Inmitten der Rosen von Sofia, Berlin oder Los Angeles. (1-21)

 

[Along the roses, betwixt their petals, time travels in drops.

Is a petal still alive after it’s been plucked?

Children are wonderful at this age, when

they no longer bite their nails,

when their features are finely drawn,

framed by their hair and with a smile

that proudly reveals Mona Lisa’s likeness. 

And time rolls on like cobs of bread and buns

with no sign yet of mold,

stashed between schoolbooks in a satchel,

nibbled on by milk teeth, and by the other kind,

all arranged in sequential harmony.

Growing up is wonderful,

a kitty cat and a lava horse,

a terracotta warrior from Xian and a teddy bear.

How lovely, how wonderful, the touch

of petals, pointed and smooth, green and pink,

the joy of being ten, being loved, being healthy,

at peace and at school with your friends.

What else can one say about a mother’s happiness?

Betwixt the roses of Sofia, Berlin or Los Angeles.]

 

The poem asks the question: “Ob das Blatt nach dem Abpflücken noch ein Lebewesen ist?” (2; Is a petal still alive after it’s been plucked?) The themes of death, reproduction, and separation from the linguistic and national collective are thus present from the very beginning of the cycle. The rose, that old warhorse of a literary symbol, resists cliché here if one remembers that roses are one of Bulgaria’s most significant crops—the country produces the vast majority of the world’s rose oil and fetes the rose in numerous festivals—and if one therefore reads it as a highly specific reference to the poet’s origins. A flower found equally in Sofia, Berlin or Los Angeles, the rose becomes the vehicle in a metaphor that allows the lyrical self to explore which facets of identity and sources of happiness are lost when one is plucked from the source and which of them can be found or recuperated elsewhere. The poem’s opening question resonates in a linguistic sense too: is there a core literary self that exists independently of, and that manifests itself in, all of the languages in which one writes? What happens when a foreign self interacts with a language that “belongs” to others?  The cycle will engage with this question in its final poem. Motherhood and the innocent happiness of a young child appear to be two of the “utopian” kinds of happiness that can be enjoyed anywhere. The time that forms beads on the petals of the plucked rose and causes bread to mold—both processes of natural decay—are counteracted by the smile of uncomplicated youth, as mysterious in its simplicity as the Mona Lisa’s source of contentment. The cycle of renewal outstrips any fear of growing older. The first references to the relationship between the old and the new are found in this poem: milk and adult teeth are “harmonisch neben einander angeordnet” (12; all arranged in sequential harmony); children play as easily with modern toys (teddy bears) as they do with ancient ones (a replica terracotta warrior from Xian). Happiness is “das Berühren / der Rosenblätter” (16-17; the touch / of petals), a blissful state perhaps only achievable in childhood when one is “geliebt, gesund / und in Frieden” (18-19; loved, …healthy / at peace). There is a deliberate sentimentality in this poem, a decision to focus on the petals rather than the thorns, and on the immediate, as if in direct response to the words of the philosopher whose name rules over the cycle: “die Weiber... sehn immer nur das Nächste, kleben an der Gegenwart, nehmen den Schein der Dinge für die Sache und ziehn Kleinigkeiten den wichtigsten Angelegenheiten vor” (Schopenhauer, Über die WeiberV: 721; women… only see what is immediately before them on the horizon, they cling to the present,take appearance to be reality and privilege trivialities over affairs of the utmost importance). The narrative voice of this poem defiantly favours and appreciates “das Nächste”—the child’s ability to live in the moment, the transitory beauty of the rose—all the while fully aware that “es rollt die Zeit” (8; time rolls on).

            The second and third poems in the cycle turn their attention to the natural world, extending their gaze beyond California to include the national parks and desert landscapes of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, as well as the people of the Navajo Nation. 

2.

Unter den Spritzern des Wasserfalls steigen wir

durch den Regenbogen bergan,

nass und von den Sonnenstrahlen schnell wieder trocken,

dann wieder durchnässt und glühend

im Kreislauf von Wasser und Sonne.

Später klebt auf den Schenkeln die Hitze,

das Innere der Erde ist hier ganz nah,

saugt die Zellen aus. Yosemite, Zion, Death Valley,

Regen von gestern oder von vor tausend Jahren.

Der Unterschied zwischen der Schnee- 

und der Salzwüste liegt nicht im Namen.

(Ist die andere etwa weniger tot,

auch wenn nur die eine tot genannt wird?)

Und das Glück wird jedes Mal in Tropfen gemessen,

gesammelt in Plastikfläschchen, aus denen wir gekauftes Wasser getrunken haben. (22-37)

 

[We climb under the splash of the waterfall

through the rainbow, up the mountain, 

wet and immediately dried by the sun’s rays,

then soaked again and glowing

in the cycle of water and sun.

Later the heat sticks to our thighs,

we are very near the earth’s core,

our cells are being sucked dry. Yosemite, Zion, Death Valley,

rain from yesterday or from a thousand years ago.

The difference between the deserts of snow

and salt isn’t borne out by their names.

(Is one of them somehow less dead 

simply because we don’t refer to it that way?)

And each time happiness is measured 

in drops of water contained in plastic bottles,

which we bought, then emptied, a moment ago.]

 

Like the rose, the rainbow is another over-used symbol drawn from the natural world. Here it is both real—the Vernal Fall of Yosemite National Park, where the rainbows that grow out of the mist from the falls compensate hikers for the soaking they receive on their way up the Mist Trail—and metaphorical, an ephemeral happiness that is always just out of reach. In this second poem, happiness is considered in terms of basic physiological needs and the fundamentals of the natural world. In the heat of Death Valley, dehydration (and the attendant spectre of death) is the greatest threat to human happiness. The greatest good therefore becomes the “in Plastikfläschchen gekauftes Wasser” (36; water contained in plastic bottles, / which we bought). Ironically, the bottled water that keeps the human being alive in this extreme natural setting is an environmental hazard. The natural world is given its own physiology here, water and sun have a “Kreislauf” (26; cycle). The dehydration which threatens the hiker is expressed in terms of the earth’s core sucking human cells dry. This observation of the human being as an essentially biological and genetically conditioned creature undoubtedly stems from Sofronieva’s scientific background. The question of whether one can escape one’s physical body and genetic code is raised in many of her poems, and notably in “Der alte Mann, das Meer, die Frau” (2007), a retelling of Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea(1952) that considers how culturally defunct gender roles linger on in today’s male-female relationships. In the Schopenhauer cycle, the theme of the relationship between old and new finds its form in the deserts of snow and salt, the glaciers that top the mountains of Death Valley with their frozen rain “von vor tausend Jahren” (30; from a thousand years ago) and the fresh rain which collects on and adds to the ancient salt pinnacles of the valley floor. 

            The third poem turns its attention to the aboriginal inhabitants of the American continent, moving to the Navajo Nation, which inhabits the largest reservation in the United States. 

3.

Die Navaho-Indianer schauen einem nicht direkt in die Augen.

Hier erhole ich mich von der Oberflächlichkeit

der Blicke außerhalb der Reservate.

Ist der Stern, von dem nur noch Strahlen leben,

Sonne oder schwarzes Loch?

Er ist seit langem tot, ist nichts oder etwas anderes,

sie aber erreichen und berühren uns durch die Pupillen.

Ob jemand genug über die gestorbenen Sterne weiß,

und entsprechend das Glück verdient, sie neu zu gebären? 

(38-46)

 

[The Navajo won’t look you in the eye.

Here I recover from the superficial

gaze outside the reservations.

Is the star of which only rays survive

sun or black hole?

It’s been dead for a long time. It’s either nothing or something 
  else,

but its rays reach us and touch us through our pupils.

Is anybody well enough acquainted with the dead stars

to have earned the happiness of giving birth to them once 
  more?]

 

The speaker of the poem notes the famous gaze aversion of the Navajo-Diné, contrasting it with “[die] Oberflächlichkeit / der Blicke außerhalb der Reservate” (39-40; the superficial / gaze outside the reservations). From the fourth line onwards, the poem turns its attention to the gaze, the manner of looking and seeing, linking the Navajo to the world of Western physics, a movement further facilitated by the fact that the Navajo have their own astronomical system, with different constellations from those of the Western tradition. The Navajo do not make direct eye contact, yet the implication is that their culture is spiritually richer than that of mainstream American society, that they do in fact “see” more. Not looking is not to be taken as evidence of not seeing. Conversely, seeing something is not necessarily evidence that is exists: light from a star continues to reach earth after its death, its rays “erreichen und berühren uns durch die Pupillen” (44; reach us and touch us through our pupils); but one may also choose to see this as evidence of life after death. There are also phenomena we cannot see but which have been proven to exist: black holes are invisible, yet scientists have ample evidence of their existence and are able to identify their locations. “Ob jemand genug über die gestorbenen Sterne weiß, / und entsprechend das Glück verdient, sie neu zu gebären?” (45-46; Is anybody well enough acquainted with the dead stars / to have earned the happiness of giving birth to them once more?) asks the poem. Giving birth to the stars may be understood in terms of description here: will we ever attain sufficient understanding of the universe’s mysterious black holes, objects of scientific speculation and flights of science-fiction fancy, to be able to adequately describe them in mathematical language and hence give them (new) life? The Glückof the happy scientist who succeeds in offering such a description is an ambiguous mixture of the “happiness” of intellectual fulfilment and of “good fortune”: both of these are signified by the German word Glück. The theme of death and renewal that began with the plucking of the rose in the first poem returns at this point. Death is not to be feared because it is not the end; it can be overcome by giving birth to children, by giving birth to words, through “dead” elements remaining visible and tangible in the natural world, through information returning from black holes. Death is inconsequential within the poem, not because we end suffering and return to non-existence or even proceed to an afterlife, but because we are “Teil der Welt” (Schopenhauer,Über den Tod II: 628; part of the world). Rather than greeting death pessimistically with a “Der Tod ist mein gänzliches Ende” (Schopenhauer,  627; death is the very end), one can take a quasi-pantheistic view of life and the universe and say, with Schopenhauer: “Ein so unendlich kleiner Teil der Welt ich bin; ein ebenso kleiner Teil meines wahren Wesens ist diese meine persönliche Erscheinung” (628; Just as I am such an infinitely small part of the world; so this physical self of mine is an equally small part of my true being).

            The fourth poem depicts a Californian society of which, one suspects, Schopenhauer would have disapproved. It is the only poem in the cycle which does not use the word Glückand yet Glückseems to be the aim of all the pleasure-seeking activities enumerated within it.  

4.

Da Freude und Genuss nicht selbstverständlich sind,

und du nur dem Schmerz absolut vertrauen kannst,

und da das Fantasieren das Alltägliche nicht zähmt,

sondern es nur mit Hoffnungen und Ängsten ansteckt,

ist es nicht genug, nur zu einer Samstagsparty zu gehen.

Geh zu einer ganzen Reihe von Partys, Theaterstücken,

Filmen, Ausstellungen, Beachvolleyball-Turnieren und

unbedingt zum Konzert der kleinen Bengel,

der Rockgruppe der Erstklässler, Einwandererkinder,

abgerissen, zusammen mit den Enkeln von Jack Nicholson. 

(47-56)

 

[Because pleasure and enjoyment are not a given,

and you can really only trust pain,

and because imagination does not tame the everyday,

infecting it with hopes and fears instead,

going to one party on Saturday isn’t enough.

Go to a whole succession of parties, plays, 

films, exhibitions, beach volleyball tournaments and

don’t miss the concert given by the little tykes,

the first graders’ rock group, immigrant kids,

uprooted, together with Jack Nicholson’s grandchildren.]

 

The poem speaks of “Freude” (pleasure), “Genuss” (enjoyment), even “Hoffnungen” (hopes) and “Fantasieren” (imagination), but their negative counterparts, “Schmerz” (pain) and “Ängsten” (fears), and the attendant spectre of death, are also present. The poem has a more classical metre than the rest of the cycle, which jars with the brash Los Angelean focus of its enquiry, and the first two lines read like a direct citation from Schopenhauer: “Da Freude und Genuss nicht selbstverständlich sind, / und du nur dem Schmerz absolut vertrauen kannst” (47-48; Because pleasure and enjoyment are not a given, / and you can really only trust pain). In order to escape the neutral state of satisfaction in which suffering is absent but in which desire also goes unquenched, “ist es nicht genug, nur zu einer Samstagsparty zu gehen. / Geh zu einer ganzen Reihe von Partys, Theaterstücken, / Filmen, Ausstellungen, Beachvolleyball-Turnieren” (51-53; going to one party on Saturday isn’t enough. Go to a whole succession of parties, plays, / films, exhibitions, beach volleyball tournaments). This is the America of excess, the America of which dour Europe disapproves, yet which it also envies, the crux of the Old World-New World clash. This may be one way of pursuing happiness, the poem implies, but isn’t it ultimately foolish, immature, a sign of a young society that is still, like a teenager, on a voyage of self-discovery? The absence of the wordGlückwould indeed appear to suggest this. Nonetheless, there is admiration for the social mix achieved by the immigrant society, “Einwandererkinder, / abgerissen, zusammen mit den Enkeln von Jack Nicholson” (55-56; immigrant kids, / uprooted, together with Jack Nicholson’s grandchildren). America embraces the stranger more easily, the project of beginning over is less problematic. Behind these words, the reader cannot help but feel the voice of the poet who has started all over again in a new language, who is struggling with the pessimism of a European tradition which says that we are foolish to expect happiness, and in which new beginnings are always haunted by the past.

            The fifth poem opens with a nod to the poststructural: “Die Poesie ist längst aus den Worten verschwunden, / die Worte sind nie in der Poesie gewesen” (57-58; Poetry vanished from words long ago, / words were never in poetry). This ode to the slipperiness of language is followed, not without humor, by the short, confident statement “Das ist klar” (59; That much is obvious). 

5.

Die Poesie ist längst aus den Worten verschwunden,

die Worte sind nie in der Poesie gewesen.

Das ist klar.

Jetzt ist noch etwas klar – 

Die Poesie nistet auf den Fassaden der Feuerwehr 

(oder waren es die der Polizei?) in dem amerikanischen Venice 

und folgt den Spuren frecher Tauben

auf den Palastmauern im europäischen Venedig.

Wer wagt zu behaupten, Glück sei maßvoll 

und an einen Ort gebunden? (57-66)

 

[Poetry vanished from words long ago,

words were never in poetry.

That much is obvious.

And so is something else—

poetry nests on the façade of the fire station

(or was it the police station?) in American Venice

and traces the tracks made by cheeky pigeons

on Venezia’s palace walls.

Who dares maintain that happiness is apposite

and has a fixed location?]

 

The physical locations of poetry—the poetry murals on the Venice Beach Boardwalk and police station, the non-linguistic poetry of the pigeon droppings in Europe’s Venice—are cited as examples of poetry’s independence from words and the printed page. There are echoes of the Beat poets here, New World poetry’s attempt to liberate itself from the classical and the conventional, and from the European. Poetry is no more tied to a location than happiness is: “Wer wagt zu behaupten, Glück sei... an einen Ort gebunden?” (65-66; Who dares maintain that happiness is apposite / and has a fixed location?) The question becomes more existential once one substitutes the “Poesie” in the poem’s first line for its creator, the poet Tzveta Sofronieva, who moves between places and languages. To what extent is the exophonic writer a “translated person”—using the descriptor so often applied to postcolonial writers and exophones—a phrase which is deeply rooted in pre-poststructuralist notions of “loss” in translation, which assume trauma and a lack of authenticity? The relationship between Venice Beach and Venezia proves useful in exploring this question.The Los Angelean Venice is a linguistic translation of the Italian city Venezia, but as Venice changes language, it also undergoes significant physical and cultural transformation. Feuchtwanger’s short story “Venedig (Texas)” (1946), which tells of a young American businessman’s desire to bring Europe to the New World by reconstructing Venezia in Texas, notes that visitors to Venice (Texas) displayed “nur kalten Respekt, keine Begeisterung” (Feuchtwanger 16; only cool respect, no enthusiasm). The amusement park aspect of the new city meets with greater enthusiasm than its high cultural offerings, and eventually the whole city is torn down when oil is discovered and the primacy of the market prevails. This state of affairs notwithstanding, Calla, a Venetian artist imported from Old Venice to lend an air of authenticity to its new incarnation, offers a more practical assessment of the role the old might play in the new, “Gewiß, die versnobte Kunst des alten Kontinents sei nichts als überzuckerter Dreck, aber wenn man alles aus sich allein neu machen müsse, dann komme man eben auch nicht weiter” (Feuchtwanger 17; of course the snooty art of the old continent is nothing more than sugar-coated muck, but if you have to start from scratch all by yourself, you won’t get very far). Processes of translation are undoubtedly at work in the person and in the poetry, but one cannot demand of the poet that she raze herself to the ground and begin again. Experience—of the poetic and lived varieties—istransferable.

            The final poem in the cycle suggests that it is not so much that one translates oneself in the move between languages but that different languages offer different possibilities. The distinction is slight but important. Before embarking on its romp through the Bulgarian, English and German words for happiness and the sounds and associations they call forth, the poem wittily refers us back to Schopenhauer for a more philosophical definition of the term Glück, using the informal plural to address the reader, which implies a shared amusement at the dour philosopher’s Weltanschauung

6.

Über das Glück – ach, wunderbares Wort! – 

lest bei Schopenhauer nach.

Meine Analyse vergleicht Laute, ist nicht objektiv.

Es gibt viele Lücken im Glück,

auch verrückt und bedrückt stecken im luck.

Im Bulgarischen wird das Glück, schtastie, oft verschluckt,

viel schund t, viel scht,

Schweigen ist im Glück.

Auch viel s, Angst, Steine, Stolpern, Stolz, Stelle, Stop.

Das Phänomen schtastieund sein Verschlucken im Hals

sind so angenehm zu erforschen.

Nicht der quälende Wunsch nach Glück, sondern ehrliches  
  Stottern

taucht in den anderen Sprachen auf.

Happinessstolpert bei dem p.

Glückgluckert leise in der Kehle,

kasmet, um genau zu sein, kismetwird es richtig ausgesprochen,

gerinnt und wird sauer bei Aufbewahrung außerhalb des  
  Kühlschranks,

du willst es nicht schlucken und fängst an, konvulsivisch zu 
  stottern

bei dem a, entsprechend bei dem i.

Die Behältnisse zur Aufbewahrung des Glücks

sind offenbar von Bedeutung. (67-87)

 

[On the subject of happiness, Glück,—ah, that wonderful 
  word!—

I recommend Schopenhauer.

My analysis is subjective, it compares sounds.

Glückhas lots ofLücken

luckrhymes with muck and stuck.

In Bulgarian, happiness, schtastie, is often hard to swallow,

there’s lots of sand t, lots of sht.

And sh: shallow, shabby, shameful, shambolic, shackled.

Happiness is happenstance.

Schtastie and its various swallowings

are so interesting to explore.

Not the tortuous desire for happiness, but an honest stutter

pops up in the other languages.

Happinesstrips up on the p.

Glückglugs down the throat,

kasmet, which should really be pronounced kismet,

curdles and goes sour when it’s kept outside the fridge,

you’re unable to swallow it and develop a convulsive stutter

on the a, or on thei.

The receptacles in which we store our happiness

are not without significance.]

 

Rather than a philosophical view, the poem offers a semiotic analysis of Glück. An awareness of different languages permits physiological exploration, an enjoyment of the materiality of words: “Das Phänomen schtastieund sein Verschlucken im Hals / sind so angenehm zu erforschen” (76-77; Schtastieand its various swallowings / are so interesting to explore). Other possibilities offered by access to multiple languages are semantic or referential. Of the three languages considered, German is the only one which does not have separate terms for “happiness” and “luck/fortune”: which of the two meanings is intended—Glück empfindenor Glück haben—has to be deduced from the context and/or choice of verb. The physiological and the philosophical are cleverly tied together: there are “Lücken” (holes) in “Glück” and “schtastie” is often “verschluckt” (swallowed); happiness “stolpert bei dem p” (79; trips up on the p). The two Bulgarian equivalents of the German Glück,schtastie(happiness) and kasmet(luck/fortune), have Slavic and Turkish roots respectively, harking back to a culturally more complex, pre-nation-state Europe which might be loosely compared to the multi-ethnic California evoked in the fourth poem. The German concept of Glückis described as “quälend” (tortuous); the other languages are assessed as more honest in their search for happiness. While these differences are significant, there is no need to choose between them, neither linguistically nor philosophically. Exophony opens up new vistas of linguistic and cultural experience; North America allows its immigrants to bring their old country with them into the new. There are many “Behältnisse” (receptacles) in which one may choose to store one’s Glück, from disposable water bottles to hard-won languages, and one does well to choose wisely, though Glückneed not be “maßvoll” (apposite): the poem makes no judgment.

            “Über das Glück nach der Lektüre von Schopenhauer, in Kalifornien” surveys America in all its complexity, expressing admiration for its natural beauty and for America’s aboriginal groups (often ignored by the European gaze), and articulating a mixture of cynicism towards and envy at the pleasure-seeking Californian lifestyle. The cycle finds itself caught between a certain sympathy for European pessimism with its inevitable condemnation of American optimism, and a longing for the (seemingly) uncomplicated new beginnings afforded by the American continent, where the past—linguistic and cultural—does not call present-day belonging into question. There is a sense that all immigrants, regardless of origin or destination, long for the New World and its quintessential immigrant experience, and that Europe will never be able to approximate North America in this respect, that it will always fall short of the ideal.

 

Works Cited

Cheesman, Tom. Novels of Turkish German Settlement: Cosmopolite Fictions. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007. Print.

Feuchtwanger, Lion. Venedig (Texas) und vierzehn andere Erzählungen.New York: Aurora Verlag, 1946. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea.London: The Reprint Society, 1952. Print.

Konstantinov, Aleko. To Chicago and Back.Trans. Robert Sturm. Philadelphia: Coronet, 2004. Print. 

Mecklenburg, Norbert. “Ein türkischer Literaturskandal in Deutschland?” Literaturkritik.de7 (2006):  n. pag. Web. 4 Feb. 2011.

Schami, Rafik. Die Sehnsucht fährt schwarz: Geschichten aus der Fremde.München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997. Print.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Sämtliche Werke. 5 vols. Stuttgart/Frankfurt: Cotta/Insel, 1960. Print.       

Sofronieva, Tzveta. Chicago Blues.Sofia: Divit/Free Poetic Society Foundation, 1992. Print.

---, ed. Verbotene Worte: Eine Anthologie.München: Biblion, 2005. Print.

---. “Über das Glück nach der Lektüre von Schopenhauer, in Kalifornien.” Akzente3 (2007): 257-9. Print.

---. “Der alte Mann, das Meer, die Frau.” Akzente3 (2007): 263-5. Print.

---. Eine Hand voll Wasser.Aschersleben: UN ART IG, 2008. Print.

---. “Un-lost in translation.” Shoreless Bridges. South East European Writing in Diaspora.Ed. Elka Agoston-Nikolova. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2010. 27-40. Print.

Whybrow, Peter C. American Mania: When More is Not Enough.New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

Yildiz, Yasemin. Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition.New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. Print.