Updated: Jan 29
I have started on the task of translating the second volume of Bocheński's Roman Trilogy and, on my second day, I am struck dumb by the enormity of the task before me and the sheer beauty of the prose.
"Summer heat, high noon. The hour when the heat was the greatest. The city seemed white-hot. All traffic in the streets had come to a stop. The sour smell of wine wafted from the taverns. Between the hot stones and the blinding light, the air became stifling. People locked themselves up in their homes: it was time for the noontime siesta.
There was always the question of whether the windows should be opened or closed. When closed, they protected against the heat, but when opened, they gave the pleasant illusion of a breeze. A brief moment of reflection before settling down on the bed. Lazy heaviness and an uncertain sense of reality. What about this window? The hand all by itself made a slight movement and pulled the latch with an unclear intention. Only then it turned out that one shutter would remain closed and the other slightly ajar.
The sun was shining through the opening between the shutters. The low light in the bedroom resembled the twilight in a forest. It had the intimacy of dusk or dawn, the mood of shameful concealment. Such conditions need to be created for a sensitive girl at the beginning of a relationship. Suddenly, this light seemed very favorably chosen in view of Corinna’s expected arrival.
She entered. In a thin tunic, not fastened with buckles, but worn loosely. She was nimble, light, and long-haired. She hadn't twisted her hair around her head or braided it into an elaborate knot but had loosened it so that it fell naturally and gracefully and revealed from time to time a flash of the white of her bare neck. She seemed unpretentious, fresh, almost girlish. And yet it was a stylish entrance, and the poet Ovid later wrote that it may well have been how Lais had looked when she visited her lovers. It was high praise indeed because the Greek Lais was regarded in that field as the most perfect ideal that the world could ever see. Ovid also made another simile. He wrote that Corinna, approaching the bed, seemed similar to Semiramis, which expressed not so much her charm as her sensuality. But that was what he wrote later, and when he saw her in that bedroom barely penetrated by the sun's rays from behind the slightly open shutters, he just thought that Corinna looked gorgeous.
So she entered as beautiful and as alluring as Lais and as lascivious as Semiramis, with the bewildering simplicity and confidence only possible in a queen or a very young person. In fact, it was not even self-confidence, but rather something unconscious and unintentional, the power of nature itself, the litheness of her figure, the ease of her stride, the freshness and openness of her entire existence. This appearance and manner so free of any planning and pretense were themselves an act of bold defiance. And if Ovid had been asked at that moment why he so vehemently desired to rip her tunic off her, he probably would not have come up with an ingenious association with Lais and Semiramis but replied: because she was Corinna.
Her sheer tunic accentuated this titillating presence. In fact, the rare muslin did not prevent the appreciation of the charms of her flesh, but Corinna wanted to keep it on nevertheless. Her lover thus met with soft resistance, not so resolute as to create an unpleasant impression of a clash or dissonance, but as natural as was required by the law of the sexes. Rather, this resistance shone through symptoms of gentleness and delightful weakness, and it consisted less in opposition to the lover and more in the inner confusion of the woman. She resisted and fought, wanting to lose as if there had been a lurking traitor in her fortress from the very beginning, who would eventually come to control the situation and—joyfully surrender. It was only years later that Ovid realized that such a course of the love game belongs to the canons of the art, but on that day, still very young, he felt that this way was the most pleasant and that Corinna was a wonderful girl.
Now the pulled-off tunic lay on the floor. The girl stood naked in the dim light coming through the shutters, and Ovid studied her for a while. She allowed herself to be studied, thereby satisfying another canon of the art, which neither of them knew at the time.
The young poet was stunned by her sight. He was overwhelmed by her flawless beauty—flawless beauty—or so he later described it in his first collection of erotica. He knew that a woman must be beautiful to affect a man, and the more beautiful, the better. He thought the perfection of beauty mattered most, and he had no doubt that that was what overwhelmed him. In reality, however, he was dazzled by Corinna’s defiant presence, that natural freedom and litheness of figure with which Corinna had entered. And perhaps the most important cause of his bewilderment was that she had entered so boldly upright, and now that he had stripped her bare, she did not dodge him. She did not bow down, did not sit down, was neither restrained nor ashamed and did not even lie down to cover her nakedness by quickly clinging to her lover; but stood there openly and proudly. A woman looks different lying down. It is a more specific and somewhat less realistic show. The mystery of a nude worthy of the canon is attained only when the naked woman appears standing. Ovid did not understand what bewitched him and thought it had to be something similar to the beauty of a statue: impeccable perfection."