<= 2008.07

2008.09 =>

[AUGUST 2008.]

Joseph Conrad, Victory

He was no longer enchanted, though he was still a captive of the islands. He had no intention to leave them ever. Where could he have gone to, after all these years? Not a single soul belonging to him lived anywhere on earth. Of this fact—not such a remote one, after all—he had only lately become aware; for it is failure that makes a man enter into himself and reckon up his resources.

 

“There!” began Ricardo quietly. “That’s just what a man like you would say. You are that tame! I follow a gentleman. That ain’t the same thing as to serve an employer. They give you wages as they’d fling a bone to a dog, and they expect you to be grateful. It’s worse than slavery. You don’t expect a slave that’s bought for money to be grateful. And if you sell your work—what is it but selling your own self? You’ve got so many days to live and you sell them one after another. Hey? Who can pay me enough for my life? Ay! But they throw at you your week’s money and expect you to say ‘thank you’ before you pick it up.”

 

He was extremely sensitive, and it would have been a tigerish thing to do to mangle his delicate feelings by the sort of plain speaking that would have been necessary. His mind was like a white-walled, pure chamber, furnished with, say, six straw-bottomed chairs, and he was always placing and displacing them in various combinations. But they were always the same chairs. He was extremely easy to live with; but then he got hold of this coal idea—or, rather, the idea got hold of him, it entered into that scantily furnished chamber of which I have just spoken, and sat on all the chairs. There was no dislodging it, you know! It was going to make his fortune, my fortune, everybody’s fortune.

 

Reacquaintance with the Attic Verb

Sphinx has become somewhat more useful by generating color-coded verb paradigms in addition to the drill function. There are probably still accent problems to weed out and I need to work something up for alternate endings, verbs that have both first and second aorists and so forth, but it works better than anything else of the sort I’ve seen on the web.

 

Athens

Also J. decided to give me the thirtieth-birthday gift of a three-night trip to Greece, because I am an embarrassing philhellene like the nineteenth-century Germans, and I kept doing embarrassing things in Athens like pointing to street signs and saying, “Look! It’s named after Sophocles!” I know just enough ancient Greek to reliably mispronounce modern Greek, but all the Athenians can speak English, whether they’re talking to Americans or Germans or Israelis—the city gives a very strong sense of English as an international lingua franca, which hadn’t been so apparent in other cities we know, like Barcelona or Berlin, where we understand more of the local language and spend more time out of the tourist spots.

temple of hephaistos, prickly pears

pomegranate

The sun, cactus, dust and dry air notwithstanding the dark gulf on the horizon, all reminded me of Arizona. It was very strange to find a land which you know in one guise, from textbooks, offering itself in another guise as a displaced homeland; and I’m not sure why the Greek language also seems like a homeland to me, why the music of its consonants is so comforting and why its insanely complex verb, whose contortions I can never remember, still seems like something I would have invented as a child, back when my principal occupation was to invent baroque and orderly things at the computer. I want very badly to go back. I want to see Delphi and the islands and learn the language of Homer, and the distinct language of Aristotle, and the distinct language of the New Testament, and the distinct language of George Seferis, whose poems, so far as I could remember them, accompanied me all through the trip. From “The Thrush”:

—“Maybe the night that split open, a blue pomegranate,
a dark breast, and filled you with stars,
cleaving time.
And yet the statues
bend sometimes, dividing desire in two,
like a peach; and the flame
becomes a kiss on the limbs, a sobbing,
and then a cool leaf carried off by the wind;
they bend; they become light with a human weight.
You don’t forget it.”

—“The statues are in the museum.”

—“No, they pursue you, why can’t you see it?
I mean with their broken limbs,
with their shape from another time, a shape you don’t
recognize
yet know.
It’s as though
in the last days of your youth you loved
a woman who was still beautiful, and you were always afraid,
as you held her naked at noon,
of the memory aroused by your embrace;
were afraid the kiss might betray you
to other beds now of the past
which nevertheless could haunt you
so easily, so easily, and bring to life
images in the mirror, bodies once alive:
their sensuality.
It’s as though
returning home from some foreign country you happen
to open
an old trunk that’s been locked up a long time
and find the tatters of clothes you used to wear
on happy occasions, at festivals with many-colored lights,
mirrored, now becoming dim,
and all that remains is the perfume of the absence
of a young form.
Really, those statues are not
the fragments. You yourself are the relic;
they haunt you with a strange virginity
at home, at the office, at receptions for the celebrated,
in the unconfessed terror of sleep;
they speak of things you wish didn’t exist
or would happen years after your death,
and that’s difficult because...”

—“The statues are in the museum.
Good night.”

—“...because the statues are no longer
fragments. We are. The statues bend lightly... Good
night.”

 

A Brief and Arbitrary Encyclopedia of Literature in Spanish (1)

Back in the States. The milk tastes so much better here; I’ve been guzzling it. We had to buy an extra suitcase to carry all the books we bought in Spain—most of my days I spent reading them.

Alberti, Rafael. Cal y Canto. Out of the dozen or so poets making up Spain’s Generation of ‘27, García Lorca is the international superstar for perfectly good reasons, but this summer I got to know some of the others. They take their name from a 1927 anthology commemorating the trecentennial of the death of Don Luis de Góngora, the then-neglected Golden Age poet whose work is arguably the best in the language. All of the ‘27 crew were interested in Góngora to some extent (Lorca’s most famous essay is about him), but few of them actually attempted any kind of neogongorista style themselves; Góngora wrote Latinized, allusive, melodious and damnably difficult verse, as unmistakable as, say, Spenser in English, and no easier to bring into the twentieth century. About half the poems in Cal y Canto find Alberti trying to do it anyway, and to his credit they don’t come out half bad. Sitting as they do among thoroughly modern pieces of a more familiar ironic bent (heaven as hotel, heaven as elevator), they end up making a patchwork of the collection. But it’s the patchwork of a talented guy.

Alberti, Rafael. Sobre los Angeles. Alberti’s fifth collection, the next after Cal y Canto and a pivot point in his career. Here he trades in the antiquarian sonnets for a prosier line based on the declarative sentence, and because these sentences are about angels most of them are shocking. A bit like Rilke, maybe; a bit like some early Stevens; but generally these are poems about solitude and they stand alone in their style, just like you want.

Aleixandre, Vicente. Passion de Tierra. Another ‘27-er, Alberti’s friend and neighbor on the bookshelf. His second collection, prose poems influenced by surrealism but with a romantic/humanist heart beating under all the non sequiturs, which I appreciate ‘cause in the end I can only take so much Dada. Also he was born with golden ears. Hard to explain; I should quote/translate one or two pieces, as with all of these.

Aleixandre, Vicente. Espadas Como Labios. His next collection, with more recognizable lyric form but plenty of verbal proliferation still jamming the signal. Think early Celan in an unusually good mood?

Asturias, Miguel Angel. Maladrón. I needed another reminder of why I love Asturias so much. What a lucky guy to go to Paris, read up on French literature and realize that his native country is a symbolist poem, or at least looks that way from Europe. So say that Spain had conquered the New World under the cross not of Christ, but of the thief who was executed next to him; say that Central America is not an isthmus but a bridge under which the Pacific and Atlantic meet. It’s all as audacious and unpredictable as my favorite parts of Pynchon, and I think Asturias must be the weirdest writer ever to receive the Nobel. (I don’t know if he would have gotten it had the Soviets not awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize the year before, and gotten everyone worried about the hearts and minds of Latin America.) It’s too bad that El Señor Presidente is his only novel readily available in English—a good book, but tamer and easier to classify than most.

Benet, Juan. Volverás a Región. How many ways can you do Faulkner in Spanish? That stripped-down Romanticism and fatalistic sense of history is just irresistible, even if it’s a bitter crop; and Benet brews a particularly weird vintage from it. He goes on the short list of writers who trained as engineers and actually understand science; while writing this novel he was building a dam in northern Spain, which I suppose accounts for all the extensive and improbably fascinating sections about topography. Against the clarity of the natural world, people are hopeless blurs; just keeping track of the chronology and working through the periphrasis to figure out who did what and why is almost an exercise in frustration. The nature of that “almost” is something I’m still trying to figure out. Benet is a first-class stylist but it’s very hard to talk about his virtues without falling back on old modernist slogans about the virtues of difficulty, demanding an active reader, artistic integrity and the refusal to compromise; none of that is exactly wrong, but I’d like to find a different way to talk about it. For now I’ll just say that after I finished Volverás a Región I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it made me want to read a lot more Benet and I hope one day I can say more.

Benet, Juan. Cuentos Completos 1. This collection brings together six novella-length pieces, of which I’ve read three so far: “Una tumba,” “Baalbec, una mancha,” and “Numa, una leyenda.” The first two are puzzles somewhat like Volverás a Región, but brevity works to their advantage and it is highly satisfying to see them snap togather. The third is one of the best pieces of twentieth-century prose I’ve read in any language, a fable about a guardian spirit abandoned by his masters that reminded me a little of Kafka, a little of Krasznahorkai, but is completely its own affair. Somewhere in the belly of JSTOR I tracked down an excerpt translated into English, and no it was not done justice.

Benet, Juan. Diecitrece fabulas y media, y decimocuarta fabula. Later book in a different style; epigrammatic little parables, all written in lapidary Spanish except for one three-paragraph job that he decided to write in English, and you know, A for effort.

Bolaño, Roberto. Nocturno de Chile. Finally read this short novel which I think was the first Bolaño to appear in English. I don’t know why so much contemporary European lit gets all earnest and sanctimonious and weirdly bloodless in dealing with historical nightmares (J. has a good theory about Habermas and the EU), but Bolaño’s indirection and melancholy rings so much truer. I think everyone already knows the ending but I won’t give it away; the part I’ll remember the longest is a fable about a Guatemalan painter in WWII Paris.

Bolaño, Roberto. Estrella Distante. Another brief novel about historical evil. The central scene is a public revelation of gruesome murder at a party in Pinochet’s Chile, and what Bolaño shows so well is that no one knows how to respond; they can’t condone it, but their society does now condone it, and they can only respond with a bizarre, damning sort of social awkwardness.

Borges, Jorge Luis. El Aleph. Well, we all know “El Aleph,” but there were a lot of stories in this collection that I’d never actually read before, because I am a poser. Of the new ones my favorite was maybe “Historia del guerrero y la cautiva,” two juxtaposed narratives about change of allegiance.

Borges, Jorge Luis. El Libro de Arena. Stories written very late in life, not as many of the famous ones. A couple of love stories, an homage to Lovecraft, some good-natured studies of impossible objects. I think he must have found some peace in old age.

Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. Tres Tristes Tigres . For some reason I was expecting great things from this, but it ended up stopping and starting and at last foundered, after a few good runs, under a treacly sea of wordplay. Like some other Spanish-American novels it gets critical attention because of “the language,” which is never a term I’ve liked—how do you separate “language” out from the other linguistic elements?—and while it’s sort of true that Cabrera Infante was enough of a virtuoso to rewrite the novel in an English version, he also had a grad student to help him out. I don’t know if it got better or worse the second time around, but this version ended up going into the small pile of paperbacks that I sold at the Sunday market for five euros, which were later spent on falafel.

Castellanos Moya, Horacio. El Asco. Thomas Bernhard impersonation about hating El Salvador, correctly brief and splenetic, makes one giggle. I don’t know what he’s like when he’s not doing pastiche.

More to come (but not as many as you think; Spanish is weirdly weighted to the beginning of the alphabet...)

 

Merce Rodoreda (1908-1983)

Rodoreda, Mercè. La plaza del diamante (La Plaça del diamant). Barcelona: Edhasa, 1982 (1960).

Rodoreda, Mercè. Jardín junto al mar (Jardí vora al mar). Barcelona: Edhasa, 2004 (1967).

Rodoreda, Mercè. Cuánta, cuánta guerra (Quanta, quanta guerra...). Barcelona: Edhasa, 2002 (1980).

Rodoreda is probably my favorite novelist from twentieth-century Spain, even though I can’t read her in the original. (The other contender would be the perplexing Juan Benet, whom I’ll write about if I ever figure out anything.) This stay in Barcelona has corrected me of the belief that Catalan is much like Spanish—of major living languages, the nearest might be Italian—and I don’t know that Rodoreda in Spanish yields particular insights denied to Rodoreda in English, except that most of her books have yet to find an English version. Anyway, Spanish translations are what you can find here and I’ve read three of them.

There are certain authors, most of them women, whom I immensely admire for writing about cruelty and hardship without chest-thumping, without slipping into bogus metaphysics about the violence at the heart of things. La Plaça del diamant (English: The Time of the Doves) treats the Spanish Civil War with a quality I can only describe as decorum—in this case as a moral virtue, a kind of probity. War in this book means what it means for most people in war zones—shortage of food, shortage of work, occasional inexplicable threat of death and sustained pressure on those personal and familial bonds which are just as real as the war and can’t be abstracted from it. It’s with those bonds that the book begins and ends: the war is an entr’acte. Not apocalypse, just a terrifying change of scenery.

Quanta, quanta guerra... (no English version), Rodoreda’s last complete novel, takes the kernel of fear at the center of La Plaça del diamant and expands it to a full-blown symbolist production, drawing from picaresque narrative and dream language. Here Rodoreda has some affinity with Lorca’s generation of poets, all born a few years earlier, but her writing is always uniquely domestic, even when the characters are wandering through the wilderness: you can’t forget about supper and sleep. All three of the novels, with their construction centered on households, their multifaceted characters (those facets, plausibly, not being integrated all the way), and their plausibly errant life paths, reminded me a little of Rodoreda’s English contemporary Barbara Comyns, who lived sixteen years as an expatriate in Barcelona. I have to wonder if they ever met, how it could have happened. But of course it’s a big city, and one thing we know from their books is that everyone has always got enough worries to keep very busy.

 

Volver

J. and I make a good team, but because absence makes the heart grow saner she took the initiative and went to Rome for a couple of nights. So I took the train back from Girona by myself, through the Catalan countryside at sunset with the weird broccoli-trees I can’t identify waving in the wind and the Pyrenees turning blue and purple out the window. Sometimes you are in a low place and everything falls on top of you and it takes all your time just to figure out what the things are; but the last couple of days I’ve been in a high place, looking down at everything from above.

We fly home on Tuesday. I never posted much about Spain, it turns out, because the point of Spain is to unplug from things. This is what the Pyrenees are doing out there, walling off the rest of Europe; this is where all the soledad comes from. One thing I unplugged from is The Artificers. Writing that sort of book, for now, is not going to get me anywhere, and it’s amazing how you can lie to yourself, telling yourself that you are finally writing the sort of book you always wanted to write when in fact you obviously don’t enjoy writing the book at all. I swapped it out for some shorter prose pieces based on mythology, and whatever else can be said about them, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed writing anything this much since 2000.

I also unplugged from the university. These two months I’ve thought so little about universities that even J. was surprised... didn’t you look once at your dissertation, she said, didn’t you stop even once to think about papers, or conferences, or jobs, or anything at all related to literary criticism? And I really didn’t. I’m not sure, said J., that people who really want to be career academics can drop the discipline completely when no one is pushing it in their face. She may be right. I’ve just been reading literature in Spanish. (Also a bit of modern Greek poetry and two formally perfect novels in English: Melville’s The Confidence-Man and Beckett’s How It Is.) When I’m unplugged from the university this is all that a canon means: the working artist’s frame of reference, the coordinates against which you have to plot movement in language. That’s what T.S. Eliot says about tradition and I know in some contexts it creates problems, but like I said, I’m unplugged, I’m just thinking about relative motion and the grid. After my oral exam a couple of years ago I finally felt like I had the grid in English; I’ll never run out of things to read, but I no longer feel the danger of secret continents tripping me up and I’m unlikely to mistake the Caribbean for the Indies. In Spanish I’m just starting to see outlines. It’s taken time, and will take more time, because translations don’t seem to help here, especially not with poetry. I’ll try to write a little about it.

The other day I actually thought about law school for about fifteen minutes before rejecting it as an obvious blind alley. Too old, too indebted, do not want to be surrounded by two hundred variations on that jerk from everyone’s junior year poli-sci class. It doesn’t worry me. Safe behind the Pyrenees nothing worries me.

 

Juan Goytisolo, La Chanca

Goytisolo, Juan. La Chanca. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983 (1962).

The standard story about postwar Spanish fiction is that the first couple of Franco decades saw an earnest but ultimately uninteresting social-realist movement, followed by a sudden turn in the sixties (more or less contemporaneous with the Latin American boom) toward a late-modernist or postmodernist emphasis on artifice and enigma. Goytisolo straddles this divide; in his early career he wrote eight realist novels, the last being La Chanca, then repudiated them all and switched to a blurrier, more difficult mode. Being cautious of the long late books I decided to start with La Chanca, which among other attractions is quite short.

Goytisolo spent most of the Franco years in Paris, and up until the Generalissimo’s death all his books were banned in Spain. La Chanca is certainly meant to outrage. The title denotes an impoverished neighborhood in the impoverished southern city of Almeida, which the geography books falsely call part of Spain; in fact it is a colony, says Goytisolo’s narrator, and the economic and social conditions he describes (with statistics as needed) certainly place it in the Third World. This isn’t Dreiser’s social realism but a more interesting quasi-journalistic form, following Goytisolo’s narrator (an unnamed expatriate Spanish writer living in Paris) through several days in Almeida, on which dates the real Goytisolo (so says the back of the book) also visited the city. The descriptions of place and incidental encounters are all written with vivid economy and read as perfectly good nonfiction even where there aren’t statistics to back them up.

It isn’t always clear where the book shades into fiction, but the main invention seems to be the narrator coming to know a particular family with particular woes. One son left years ago to find work in France and was killed in an industrial accident; another has just been picked up by the Guardia Civil. Because Goytisolo doesn’t try to force development of these situations, and because his narrator can’t do anything other than listen and be outraged, the stories manage to complement the journalist sections rather than undercutting them. The effect is a bit like Juan Rulfo’s minimalist stories about Jalisco, with their individualized observations of hardship. So while the realist/antirealist division might work as a first pass for Goytisolo or Spanish fiction in general, there’s clearly a lot more going on. As far as I know, none of the early Goytisolo has been translated into English; taking the later work on its own might lead to a cockeyed view.

 

Juan Carlos Onetti, Juntacadaveres

Onetti, Juan Carlos. Juntacadáveres. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2001 (1964).

Santa María, Uruguay is a coastal town invented by Juan Carlos Onetti, on the model of Faulkner and García Márquez, as a setting for a series of novels. In this installment we follow the efforts of the title character, whose name means “collector of corpses”—or in a more sexual sense, “one who shacks up with corpses”—to set up a legal brothel in town. He gets his name from his peculiar bent for aged or otherwise ruined prostitutes (he’s collected more corpses than Napoleon, says someone), and what holds the book together is less the compact plot than the conjunction of sex and death in the title pun; how do you differentiate the desired body from a dead body?

Now I have to admit that I’ve never had much trouble with that question, and that I’ve never really understood those representations of sex which turn on a horrified fascination with the corruptible body. But the topos comes up so often in Western art that I guess someone is getting something out of it. This topos tends to bring along some helpful corollaries:

1) People sure can be hypocrites, especially if they’re religious, and it all comes from not wanting to confront the body.
2) If you do confront the body it is both pleasurable and gross, and sometimes existentially unsettling to boot. (When you look into a vulva, the vulva also looks into you!!!)
3) Women are weird and crazy and sometimes you have to slap them around a little, even if you feel bad about it later.

In fairness, this isn’t as ludicrous a descent into the solitary vortex as Last Tango in Paris; the milieu of the town comes across clearly, and there are a number of sharply drawn characters. Onetti also writes a really admirable Spanish, lean and graceful. But these ideas, they baffle me.

 

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