Mrs. Lowe-Porter
by Jo Salas

To read Horace in Latin, Dante in Italian, or Racine in French is to experience something that these poets have to say that cannot be captured in translation. And it is very hard to describe this something in a language other than the poet’s. You have to be there, is what it comes down to. Which may be just as well. Without a moderate command of French, you cannot hope to read Proust, but neither — and this is the mercy — are you likely to have any idea of what you’re missing. If by chance you get a glimpse of what’s going on in Un amour de Swann (a phrase that does not mean “Swann in Love,” for which Swann amoureux would have been a better correlative, had Proust and Scott Moncrieff been collaborating), you might be inspired to enter and explore the very different world of another language. But if that never happens, you’re fine.

I’m never fine; I’m always tempted to learn what people speaking ostensible gibberish are really saying, or better, what they’re thinking. I give in to this temptation primarily by purchasing books that promise to teach me foreign languages, and, where European classics are concerned (and Tang poets, too), books that contain original texts. That is why I happened to have a copy of Tod in Venedig on hand when I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s The Magician a few years ago. The Magician is about Thomas Mann, and it comes very close to saying that Mann’s oeuvre, which often seems to create a monument to its own transcendence, is really — all about nothing. Or perhaps, more interesting, a monumental self-parody. Intrigued, I decided to have a look at Mann’s famous novella about a great writer (not Mann!) whose ageing self disintegrates on the sands of the Lido. And to help me along, I had two translations.

There used to be only one. Until Mann’s copyright expired, the English rights were held by Alfred A Knopf, the country’s most august publisher, and Knopf’s translator, for decades, was H T Lowe-Porter. Growing up (and old), I read Mann’s classics in Lowe-Porter’s translations. I never gave the man a thought, really, aside from mistakenly assuming that he was English. It never occurred to me that he was a woman until the recent re-reading of Death in Venice. My itch to check things out with Wikipedia has become incurable, and what else do you think I discovered there? The American Helen Tracy Porter Lowe (her married name) was one of the four great-grandmothers of Boris Johnson!

While I managed to work out Mann’s prose in Tod in Venedig, it did not seem to do anything — to say or suggest anything — that wasn’t put as well or better in Lowe-Porter’s English. This was unusual, and it hinted that Tóibín might be on to something.

Now comes Mrs Lowe-Porter, a novel by Jo Salas. Ms Salas is the wife of one of  her heroine’s actual grandsons, an American cousin of sorts of the former prime minister’s.* She has taken the people in Helen Porter’s actual life who were her age or older into her fiction, but she has invented a few incidental characters and given Helen an entirely alternate cast of children and grandchildren. So Albert Einstein, a friend met through her husband, Elias Lowe (né Loew), at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, makes a couple of appearances, but there is no possibility of the future Boris’s career even being hinted at. The story is told in fifty-eight short chapters (the novel, published by Jackleg Press, is only a little over 250 pages long) — staccato vignettes that trace a long course of unintended but thoughtless sexist insults, inflicted by her husband, Elias, her author, Mann, her publisher, Knopf, and the world in general. The extent to which Helen Porter internalized these insults is reflected in the name that she assumed as a translator, but Salas is primarily occupied with Porter’s life after she passed the point of being able to internalize any more of them. Her Helen grows into a crabby and implacable old woman who, though she loves watching her grandchildren grow, is not capable of establishing contact with another human being.

The story opens in Munich, where the two American students, Helen and Elias, have met and fallen in love. Salas suggests that they fell into bed, so to speak, before they got married, but  its was not Porter’s fate to be an unwed mother. Her affliction instead was a husband who felt himself to be burdened by the Life Force. Three guesses at what this might be, and if you need two of them —! Loew, a lapsed Jew who eventually established himself as an eminent paleographer, is an unconscious but rigid Victorian patriarch. Salas cleverly distinguishes him as a scholar-husband from the odious Mr Casaubon by making hm supportive of Helen’s work as a translator — even before working on Mann, she was the breadwinner for some time — and by giving him the bad idea of choosing “Hal” as an endearing name for his wife. It does not take Helen long to see through to the real meaning of this moniker, which is to neuter her — for romantic purposes only, certain not domestic ones — into a pal who won’t mind his carnal intermezzos with lovely young ladies whenever he is out of town, which is often. Inevitably, he Goes Too Far, and we see the disaster coming before any of the characters. The marriage is broken but not terminated. (In fact, it ended with Helen’s death in 1963.)

Helen is also afflicted by the urge to write poetry and fiction. Salas is careful to avoid the blunt conclusion that Porter’s failure to publish any fiction at all is the inevitable sacrifice of a wife, mother, and translator. But her heroine is not so shy of making exactly this judgment. My own impression is that Porter proved her gifts as a writer in her translations, which liberate Mann’s stories from his  thorny Teutonic syntax and present it in limpid and often striking English. But increasing frustration and a growing sense of  social injustice constitute the prevailing theme of Mrs Lowe-Porter. This sets the book in difficult territory. Feminist critique of Western society has mutated several times since the beginning of the last century, and each mutation has been expressed in the language of its own time. Salas is also writing long after Porter’s life (and experience) ended, and every once in a while it shows with a bit of glare, as when Salas has Porter cheering herself on through a difficult passage of Mann by saying, “I can do this!” Overall, Salas avoids such anachronisms, but her careful compromises make the book’s language unstable and often wobbly. Her grip on Porter’s state of mind, as it might have been eighty or ninety years ago is not always firm. Because Porter burned all of her attempts at fiction and does not appear to have kept a diary, there is no way to know how she thought what she thought — if indeed there is a difference. Brian Morton, in his novel Florence Gordon, solved the problem by fixing his protagonist in the present and  giving us her sharp recollections of a career as a feminist crusader. Salas does not have this retrospective luxury. Helen’s mind did not, like Florence’s, grow more acute with age. I suppose that mine hasn’t improved, either. Although I was often moved by the story of a woman whom for most of my life I thought of as a man, I was often a crabby and implacable old critic.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to have read Mrs Lowe-Porter. It’s a story, unfortunately, that still needs to be told, and the particulars of Helen Porter’s life, as set forth by her granddaughter-in-law, renew that necessity.