Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Rowing Room With A View

One of Sweden's most famous authors, Frans G. Bengtsson, wrote in one of his essays: "... for if a man is to live happily he must have water to look at..."

My study has only one window, facing east towards the Mystic River. It is not a grand view; if you would like to see the water, you have to stand by the window and peer above the rooftops and through the branches of the trees belonging to the neighbours. And if there are few or no leaves on the branches you can catch a glimpse of the river. Again, maybe not a great view, but knowing that the river is there, makes all the difference...

It is in this study - by the rest of the family called "The Rowing Room" - I write my entries to this blog and other pieces on rowing. It is not strange that my family has given the room that name as I am surrounded by "rowing stuff" there: rowing posters, rowing books, rowing magazines, and some few pieces of rowing memorabilia, etc. It is also here on the bookshelves that I keep my books by Frans G. Bengtsson.

Bengtsson was born in 1894 and was a poet, essayist, critic, and novelist - a true man of letters. Nowadays, Bengtsson is best remembered for his Viking novel about Röde Orm (Röde Orm, two volumes 1941 and 1945), which was given the title The Long Ships when it came out in an English edition in 1954, the same year Bengtsson died. And let it be said at once, the translation by Michael Meyer is brilliant. Michael Meyer (1921-2000), an Oxford poet and one-title novelist (The End of the Corridor; 1951), was asked to translate Bengtsson's Viking novel. Many other English translators had refused to translate it, as, Meyer writes in his witty essay "Frans G. Bengtsson to his translator", the "money offered was so pitifully low, ten shillings [...] a page." But Meyer decided to have a go at it, and the Swedish author, who had a degree in English, promised to check Meyer's translation. The result is luminous. If you decide to only read one Swedish novel in your lifetime, The Long Ships has to be it!

I had the great pleasure to meet Michael Meyer at a lecture and dinner given by the "Frans G. Bengtsson Society" in Lund, Sweden in September 1995. It was the most funny and enjoyable lecture and dinner party I have ever attended. Two years later, in a small pamphlet printed by the society, Michael Meyer had his essay "Frans G. Bengtsson to his translator" published, together with a piece about Bengtsson and the Scottish author Eric Linklater written by - I am honoured to say - yours truly. After translating Bengtsson's book, Meyer would later translate plays by Strindberg and Ibsen, and also write highly praised biographies about these two Scandinavian playwrights. Meyer would also write a couple of plays himself. If you are interested in Meyer and the London theatre life in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, do read his very entertaining autobiography Not Prince Hamlet - Literary and Theatrical Memoirs (1989).

It is not a coincidence that Chris Dodd mentions The Long Ships in his The Story of World Rowing (1992) as the Vikings were known to both sail and row their mighty ships. In The Long Ships Röde Orm and his friends are taken as slaves to row one of the Caliph's ships. At this hard time at the oar, Bengtsson writes,

"In his old age, Orm used to say that this period in his life was lengthy to endure, but brief to tell of, for one day resembled another, so that, in a sense, it was as though time was standing still for them. But there were signs to remind him that time was, in fact, passing; and one of these was his beard. When he first became a slave, he was the only one among them so young as to be beardless; but before long, his beard began to grow, becoming redder even than his hair, and in time it grew so long that it swept the handle of his oar as he bowed himself over his stroke. Longer than that it could not grow, for the sweep of his oar curtailed its length; and of all the methods of trimming one's beard, he would say, that was the last that he would choose."

After Orm and his men have managed to escape and are back home on the Nordic waters, they are invited to celebrate Yule at King Harald Bluetooth's court. Here King Harald calls them to drink ale, but asks Orm and his friend Toke to compose a poem each about their drink. Toke, who has not tasted better ale for many years, empties his vessel with delight and thereafter declares with strong voice:

"Thirsting I rowed for many a year,
And thirsting I did good slaughter.
All praise to thee, Gorm's gracious heir!
Thou knowest my favourite water!"

I have earlier written an article about Frans G. Bengtsson, Vikings and how my old rowing coach, Tore Persson, at my rowing club in Malmö, Sweden, ended up in a Hollywood movie by Kirk Douglas, The Vikings. If you would like to read the article, please click here.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating background on the translation of a remarkable book. Is Michael Meyer's essay re: the translation available online? One of the footnotes in the books suggests that Frans Bengtsson was consulted on the translation but it would be interesting to read more about that process.