Monday, March 8, 2010


Just a few weeks ago, Anne Lise Marstrand-Jørgensen received Danish weekly Weekendavisen's prestigious Prize for Literature for her recent and much acclaimed novel, Hildegard, a stunning, claustrophobic fiction depicting the life of the Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). A masterful work deserving of widespread attention. Gyldendal commissioned me for a sample translation, a small excerpt of which follows here:

The Archbishop leads the procession through the church. Brushing silk robes; jangling, golden crucifixes. From the thuribles a good smell issues, an intoxicating, heavy scent, and in a moment they are to rise from their uncomfortable position. He blesses them with outstretched hands. A thousand fireflies leave his hands. They burn on their backs. He splashes water on their outstretched bodies; small, grey islands appear on the white cloth, a circular pattern, beautifully symmetrical. Jutta lies motionless. The child trembles. A single word is sufficient sign for Jutta, who is concentrated on all that is said, and slowly she rises to her knees, places both hands under the child’s arms and pulls her upright with her. Hildegard’s face blushes red and white, the twigs have left a labyrinth on her cheeks and chin, the garland of straw has dropped halfway down over her eyebrows. It seems she will fall: she sways from side to side, opens and closes her hands, but remains standing. There is a priest on either side of them; he hands them each two lighted candles. One candle for the love of God, one for the love of one’s neighbour, burning tallow running down Hildegard’s hands.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.
The expelled air of bodies rising. Someone drops something on the floor with a harsh clatter, another coughs, another groans. Jutta is a branch of a young tree. Hildegard is a hard, unripened fruit, fastened to the tree by a pliable stalk. She totters no longer. Hildebert and Mechthild step forth and stand beside their child. Hildebert is standing so close that Hildegard can inhale his familiar scent. Mechthild is behind him. With the bishop leading the way, the funereal procession proceeds through the church. Hildegard’s feet are tingling; she keeps a tight hold of the candles, her body now woken from torpor. Hildebert is standing so close she can feel his cloak, the soft fur brushing intolerably against her arm.
Veni, Creator Spiritus, mentes tuorum visita, imple superna gratia quae tu creasti pectora.
Before the altar they must kneel three times.
Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam et non confundas me in expectatione mea.
The four candles, Jutta’s two and Hildegard’s two, are to be placed on the altar. The draught almost snuffs out the flame, and the priest must shield the candles with his hand. The fire sparkles in his golden finger ring, turning Hildegard into a sleepwalker child reaching out her hand to touch the flame. Hildebert takes her by the shoulder, arresting her outstretched hand, turning her round so that she must follow Jutta and the rest of the procession back to the uncomfortable bed. The warmth of his hand seeps through her clothing. During the reading and the sermon they again lie prone and when once more they are allowed to rise, Hildegard surveys the congregation, looking for her father’s face. People have come from all over, men and women, uneasy, tripping feet, colourful capes, furs, and mouths agape. It is a day without end, the moment before death, in which the light of Paradise, distant and unattainable, beguiles. Hildebert towers above the other men; hunched and broad-shouldered he stands with folded hands. When Hildegard’s name is uttered in barely comprehensible prayer, a twitch passes across his otherwise so expressionless face. Mechthild’s face is only barely visible in shadow and light, soft, shimmering fields concealing her eyes and motionless mouth. Hildegard stared and stared before being made to lie down on the spruce needles. Her eyes are dry, but their faces were a collision with an absence almost forgotten. Little jolts, a scorching hot tongue against the inside of an iron bell.
The girls are kneeling on the floor in front of their cell. The shovel is so small it almost vanishes in the hand of the bishop. A fine layer of dusty earth gathers along the straw garland on Hildegard’s head. Then the bishop sprinkles earth on Jutta’s head, too, and she blinks. De terra plasmasti me et carne induisti me. Redemtor noster resuscita me in novissimo die.
Mechthild places her arm under Hildebert’s, but he pulls away from her. Sophia sends Mechthild a nod. She nods back as tears flow down over her cheeks and mouth, despite Hildebert looking upon her with harsh, condemning eyes. Mechthild looks at her daughter, who is kneeling with her back towards her. She herself will never set foot in the chambers in which her youngest born will spend the rest of her days. Until now she has been able to hold the void at bay by fantasising of reunion, but on this mountain daydreams have no place. She will at best be able to speak to her daughter once a year through a tiny, barred window. In this bare church room, she will sit on a wooden chair and listen to the voice of her child; here she will manoeuvre her fingers through the bars in order to stroke her hands; here she will see the years extinguish the child’s face she knows, and replace it with that of a woman. It was her own idea to send Hildegard to the cloister, yet even though she cannot see any other way, doubt has been eating at her ever since Hildegard was sent to Sponheim. On several occasions she has felt ready to ride alone the entire way to Sophia’s estate and take back her daughter. She has been quite unable to speak of the matter with Hildebert. He says almost nothing any more, but behaves as though they have an account to settle.
O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.
The male voices of the choir sound beautifully through the church. The girls sway forward on their knees, the congregation remaining standing behind them. Some mumble along with the psalm; most are silent, their eyes on the girls, the Archbishop, the priests and the monks, who follow on into the little cell bearing thuribles, holy water, mortar trough and trowel. Jutta is gone first, then Hildegard. Jutta’s radiant, white clothing cannot withstand the dark; only the voice of the bishop still prevails, strong and masterful.
Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season.
The priests’ response is a mumble so subdued those at the front must take a step forward.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
Hildegard is gone; the darkness engulfs its corn of wheat, and Mechthild wrings her hands until they pain. Sophia touches her arm. She is saying something Mechthild cannot hear. Mechthild is thinking only that it is as though Hildegard never was in the world at all, but crept straight from her mother’s womb into her grave at the rear of this foreign church.
© Anne Lise Marstrand-Jørgensen and Gyldendal 2009
Translation © Martin Aitken 2010