A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: The epic German poem, The Nibelung, that inspired Wagner, Victorian fashion and hair styles, and poet Jackie Kay’s search for her biological parents.
Better Than Wagner
There is not much about being human that one cannot learn from the Song of the Nibelungs, writes Bettina Bildhauer in this week's TLS. This epic poem is the Northern European myth of power and revenge, distilling centuries of wisdom about psychology and politics into a simple tragic story: the tale of Siegfried, a hero who comes to power through his own strength and daring and is crushed by the political elite. His widow, Kriemhild, takes on the members of the establishment who killed him, and step by step slaughters them all because they refuse to give up one of their own. The grandmother of all medievalist fantasy and of superhero comics, the Nibelungenlied has it all in terms of a gripping yarn, too: it gives you the treasure, the dragon, the most valiant knights, the most beautiful ladies, the invincible hero, the spectacular battles, the mysteries, the mermaids, and the dead.
But unlike the romances about King Arthur and his knights written around the same time, the Song of the Nibelungs makes no efforts at an appealing, flowing narrative style. Instead, it's more like a film by Quentin Tarantino: one impressive scene after the other, held together not so much by logical continuity as by vignettes of violence, pain, and unexpected beauty and humor. Few people now read it even in translation—and it has been abandoned to the many lovers of Wagner and a few students of German.
Bildhauer describes a new translation by Cyril Edwards as the most faithful to date. Edwards manages to retain the chunky quality of the original, in his short sentences, set side by side without the help of conjunctions. This works quite well because modern English is still so close to medieval German—they belong to the same language family, as if as nephew and aunt.
Galia Ofek’s book, Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture, is bluntly titled, writes Kirstie Blair in the TLS and, since this is the first full-length study of hair in this period, at times Ofek seems over-anxious to justify her topic. Any anxiety is unnecessary, Blair concludes. Victorian hair, as Ofek shows, was a portable and endlessly adaptable property. The increasing value placed on beautiful hair as a woman’s selling point, and a new medical concern with healthy hair, meant that the market in false hair, hair products, and hairdressing grew to huge proportions in the course of the century. In a carefully theorized reading of hair in terms of fetishism and transgression (including Victorian concepts of the fetish as well as a post-Freudian understanding), Ofek suggests that the period was marked by the attempt to "bury, fix, tame or categorize women’s hair as a means to contain the discussion of female sexuality," but that representations of hair, particularly in literature, always exceeded or escaped the containing discourses. The inclusion of male novelists and artists—Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Collins, the Pre-Raphaelites—suggests that they were certainly fully literate in the matter of women’s hair. She suggests scope for further study, perhaps of changing fashions in male facial hair or of bodily hair in both men and women. One of the few areas of literature untapped by Ofek’s research is Victorian pornography, perhaps the only place in which a hero could celebrate his adolescent fascination with the hair under a woman’s arms.
A Poet’s Search for Herself
The Scottish poet Jackie Kay was raised by parents who took life as it came, writes Sheena Joughin, describing how when the couple married and could not afford both a wedding ring and a rucksack for their walking-tour honeymoon, they decided against the ring. When they could not conceive, they went to the adoption board. There were no babies available, until they mentioned that they didn’t mind what color theirs was, and were given a dark-skinned boy to take home. Two years later, they further confused the neighbors in their Glasgow suburb by adopting a "mixed-race" baby girl. ("Your daughter’s awful tanned. Is she that color every day?")
Thirty years later, in 1991, the daughter published her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers. Six more collections and two collections of short stories later, Red Dust Road leads back again to the start of Kay’s writing and life. She has now traced a Scottish birth mother, who lives in Milton Keynes, and a Nigerian father, who returned to Africa shortly after she was born. "I don’t know why our Jackie went all the way to Nigeria to meet that bampot," was her father’s initial reaction to the quest for blood-family that this memoir relates. Her mother’s advice at the outset is to "have a wee half bottle and forget all about it."
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.