Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Genesis of a Title

In my experience the titles of literary works—and similarly the names of places—have a life of their own; they can subsist in my memory and come to represent something quite different than the author once intended, or, equally likely, continue to hold the essence while the details that supported it thin out and vanish.

To give an example, many years ago now I watched a play on public television—quite a long play and very cerebral, intellectual, but fascinating. It was called The Ascent of Mt. Fuji. I remembered the title, also a kind of mental snapshot of watching the play, but had forgotten all else until I went in search of the details this morning. The play was written by Chingiz Aitmatov, a Kyrgyzstani writer of the communist era. The play dealt with the suppression of dissent in the U.S.S.R. in his time, but I retained something quite different from it, the essence of any and all ascents from the restricted to the exalted. For details about Aitmatov, I suggest this site.

But let me get to the title of my first published novella, The Splendid Freedom. Having been raised in multiple languages—so much so that they are part of my bodily fiber, when the plot of that novel arose in my mind, the perfect title for it came to me instantly. Too bad it was in German: Die Grosse Freiheit. The words simply mean “the great freedom.” The reason why these words surfaced was because there had been a quite famous movie entitled Die Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7. It was a Nazi era film (1944); Hans Albers starred in it. But the Nazis themselves then banned it.

What about that Nr. 7? Well, the original of Die Grosse Freiheit is actually the name of a street in the Reeperbahn district of the city of Hamburg, an entertainment enclave. There is also Die Kleine Freiheit, the little one, in the same neighborhood. The movie dealt with a sailor’s love affair while on leave. Not that any of this was consciously in my mind. I was too little at the time of the film either to have seen it or, aged eight, to have any concept of its premise. But the phrase had a lot of visibility in later years, not least because it occurs in the refrain of German lyrics fashioned to the famous melody, La Paloma, which that movie introduced.

Herewith a rather free translation of the first two stanzas of the song as the Germans sang and presumably still sing it. To check the German original, those adequate might want to look here.

A wind blows from the south and draws me out to sea.
Don’t sorrow, child, although our parting smarts—but me,
I must on journeys go, afar abroad, away.
Your pain shall pass, reunion soon shall be our bliss.
Longing tugs me toward a blue horizon with
Waves beneath, the night and stars above. The hiss
Of this life’s wind is at my back, distance in sight.
Cry not, my child, your tears cannot arrest my flight.

La Paloma, olé
That which must be, must be
Only the longed-for hours of love
Remain behind on land, my dove.
The sea, the sea, she is the sailor’s bride
And by her side, sweet one, I must abide,
But when storms start to shriek their melody
The Splendid Freedom, in my heart, still holds a memory.

In any case, to round this out, as I was contemplating that title, I translated it then, as I did this morning here, rendering the lyrics, by replacing great, with but one syllable, with splendid, with two, which matches the rhythm of the German and, in effect (to use a musical analogy) raises the meaning by an octave.

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