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 Spainmost 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 Englisha 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 likedhow 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...)