Sunday, December 14, 2014

Notebook: Lost bibliography

For just shy of thirty years I've maintained a little spiral notebook (now missing its back cover) in which I've recorded the particulars of every book I've read through to the end. I don't often flip through its back pages, but every now and then I hunt up the title of a volume I no longer own, or take a look back to refresh my memory about when I read a certain book or what I was reading during a given period in my life.

I have to shake my head about some of the entries in the notebook — did I truly read two books, a decade apart, about the Iranian revolution, a subject that's of no more interest to me than a hundred other topics I might have read about but never bothered to? Some books, looking back on it, were more or less a waste of time, but in the end not that many. There are some things on the list that I know I read and enjoyed but don't now don't particularly remember much about (Jan Morris's Heaven's Command, Marcia Davenport's biography of Mozart), some I had mixed feelings about at the time but that I've never quite shaken off (David Searcy's virtually unreadable but oddly fascinating Ordinary Horror), and some I've gone back to and re-read multiple times. And then there are the ones I don't remember at all — not many, maybe 1% of the total, and none in the past decade — and those are the ones that really puzzle me.
Arenas, Reinaldo Graveyard of the Angels Avon 1987
I read a lot of Latin American literature and I know exactly who Reinaldo Arenas was, but if you had asked me if I had ever read anything by him I would have been quite sure that I hadn't. The most I can summon up about this one is a vague Caribbean atmosphere, which I could just as well have gotten from reading a review. I read it just before Cortázar's El examen (which I remember quite clearly, though I've never gotten around to re-reading it).
Bacon, Charlotte Lost Geography Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2000
Nice cover (see above). I recognize the story line, but I mistakenly thought it belonged to another novel (see "Michaels, Anne" below). I did like this, and probably would read it again, but I'm not sure if I still own a copy.
Badaracco, Claire Trading Words: Poetry, Tyography & Illustrated Books in the Modern Literary Economy Johns Hopkins 1995
This sounds like something I would have gone for but I no longer remember it at all.
Childress, Mark Crazy in Alabama Putnam 1993
I draw a blank on this one. Judging from the publisher's description it doesn't sound like something I would have read. But read it I did.
Forrest, Emma Namedropper Scribners 2000
"Meet Viva Cohen: her bedroom walls are plastered with posters of silver-screen legends, and underneath her school uniform she wears vintage thigh-high stockings. Her best friends are a drugged-out beauty queen and an aging rock star. She lives in London with her gay uncle Manny." Okay, very vaguely familiar.
Huston, Nancy The Mark of the Angel Steerforth 1999
I feel bad about this one. I think I must have liked it, and I know who Nancy Huston is, but I can't say that I recall the story.
Michaels, Anne Fugitive Pieces Knopf 1997
I have good memories associated with this author and title, and I still have the galley, but apparently I've also confused it with another book (see "Bacon, Charlotte" above). Here's the jacket copy:
In 1940 a boy bursts from the mud of a war-torn Polish city, where he has buried himself to hide from the soldiers who murdered his family. His name is Jakob Beer. He is only seven years old. And although by all rights he should have shared the fate of the other Jews in his village, he has not only survived but been rescued by a Greek geologist, who does not recognize the boy as human until he begins to cry. With this electrifying image, Anne Michaels ushers us into her rapturously acclaimed novel of loss, memory, history, and redemption.
It sounds promising but I don't recall it.
Millet, Lydia Omnivores Algonquin 1996
Publisher's Weekly describes this as follows:
"Millet's feisty but sometimes awkward debut tells of a young girl's coming-of-age in an extremely dystopian version of modern America. The Candide-like protagonist, Estee Kraft, spends her childhood as a prisoner of a bedridden mother and psychopathic father, who forces her to assist him in a variety of murderous 'experiments,' beginning with moths and culminating with his abduction of an elderly woman."
It doesn't ring any bells.
Offil, Jenny Last Things Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1990
Here's how the publisher describes this:
Grace's father believes in science and builds his daughter a dollhouse with lights that really work. Grace's mother takes her skinny-dipping in the lake and teaches her about African hyena men who devour their wives in their sleep. Grace's world, of fact and fiction, marvels and madness, is slowly unraveling because her family is coming apart before her eyes. Now eight-year-old Grace must choose between her two very different, very flawed parents, a choice that will take her on a dizzying journey, away from her home in Vermont to the boozy, flooded streets of New Orleans — and into the equally wondrous and frightening realm of her own imagination.
If you say so. Maybe the skinny-dipping caught my eye.
Perutz, Leo By Night Under the Stone Bridge Arcade 1990
Perutz, Leo Saint Peter's Snow Arcade 1990
Leo Perutz is a special case. I remember very clearly reading his novel The Marquis of Bolibar, which I still own, and liking it enough that I wanted to read the other books of his that Arcade released at about the same time, but I remember nothing about these two volumes, which I no longer own. Two or three years ago, in the course of a discussion of old Prague legends, someone recommended that I read By Night Under the Stone Bridge. I made a mental note to do so, not recalling that I already had.
Teller, Astro Exegesis Vintage 1997
I read a book by someone named Astro Teller? Have I even heard of Astro Teller? The book appears to be science fiction. I remember nothing about it — zilch. The next book I read was Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, all 773 grueling pages of it. For better or worse that's an experience I won't forget.
Wolfe, David W. Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life Perseus 2001
This sounds good but I don't recognize it.
Wolff, Philippe Western Languages AD 100-1500 Phoenix Press 2003
This was undoubtedly a review copy that came into the office where I was working at the time. I've always been interested in historical linguistics but I suspect it must have been deadly dull for it to have made no impression on me whatsoever.

My apologies to the authors; it's not you, it's me.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fighting words

The Spectator, 6 November 1852:
Five publishers were yesterday summoned by Mr. Panizzi for the non-delivery of books at the British Museum. They were all convicted and fined. Mr. H. G. Bohn was one of them. He had not sent in a copy of Andrew Fuller's Works. There was a rather warm scene in court between the librarian and the publisher. Mr. Bohn contended, that a courteous intimation that the book had not been sent would have insured its being sent with an apology for the oversight: that was the course followed by Mr. Panizzi's predecessor. Mr. Bohn further said, it was well known that he sent his books to the Museum, yet it constantly happened that his friends could not find them. Mr. Panizzi (very warmly)— "That's untrue, and you know it." Mr. Bohn— "I know that I have applied for one of my books myself, without being able to get it." Mr. Panizzi— "What book? Name any book." Mr. Bohn— "Why, Schiller's Works, for one, I remember." Mr. Panizzi— "It is false. You shall not make such a charge in public."

Sunday, November 30, 2014


At first glance, Ana María Matute's 1960 novel Primera memoria seems much of a piece with the narratives with which she ended her career some five decades later, Paraíso inhabitado and the unfinished Demonios familiares. Like the later books, it takes place during the first months of the Spanish Civil War and centers around an adolescent girl in a conservative Catholic family divided by death, separation, or emotional remoteness. There are even some common allusions: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," a toy theatre, and so on. But though there's a bittersweet, autumnal sorrow even in Matute's last books, Primera memoria, written and published in the dead years of the Franco era, is a very different, much more troubling tale.

The heroine, Matia, fourteen years old, has lost her mother years before; her subsequent caretaker, a family retainer, has taken ill shortly before the novel begins. With her father absent (and regarded as a black sheep due to his allegiance to the Republic), she is packed off to her grandmother's home on an island that is unnamed but presumably Majorca or one of its neighbors. The forbidding figure of her grandmother reigns over the house and much of the vicinity, but Matia and her male cousin, Borja, who is a year older, regularly escape to drink and smoke on the shore, out of sight of the family and the slightly older tutor who is supposed to be keeping tabs on them. Borja also steals money, weapons, and other contraband from his grandmother and elsewhere, and caches them in a stranded boat. Inevitably, the two lonely adolescents form close, but deceptive, bonds.

Nothing on the island is above board, and nothing is what it seems. Smuggling is rampant, adultery widespread, and with the outbreak of the war old scores begin to be settled. Some of the scores are ancient: on the outskirts of town there is a ruined district — the plaza de los judíos — where, centuries earlier, the Inquisition had burnt the island's unconverted Jews. The descendents of the conversos, the Jews who chose to adopt Christianity in order to save their lives, are taunted as chuetas, the worst imaginable insult; nevertheless their bloodlines, like subterranean streams, in fact appear to be everywhere on the island. A rival gang of teenagers, armed with meat hooks, sets bonfires and immolates straw men dressed up to resemble Borja, in order to draw him into battle. But in the end, they all fear Borja, and with good reason; he is charming, but as Matia delares, he also has "an absolute absence of pity." His streak of ruthlessness will do terrible damage by the novel's end, and he will not pay be the one to pay for it.

Though she had a long and successful career, Ana María Matute reportedly ran afoul of Franco-era censorship at times. Primera memoria, which won the Premio Nadal and is the first part of a loosely linked trilogy, may simply have been too subtle and ingeniously crafted to set off the censor's alarm bells. It is no less subversive for all that. It has been translated into English twice, once as Awakening and once as School of the Sun.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mark Strand (1934-2014)


A man walks towards town,
a slack breeze smelling of earth
and the raw green of trees blows at his back.

He drags the weight of his passion as if nothing were over,
as if the woman, now curled in bed beside her lover,
still cared for him.

She is awake and stares at scars of light
trapped in the panes of glass.
He stands under her window, calling her name;

he calls all night and it makes no difference.
It will happen again, he will come back wherever she is.
Again he will stand outside and imagine

her eyes opening in the dark
and see her rise to the window and peer down.
Again she will lie awake beside her lover

and hear the voice from somewhere in the dark.
Again the late hour, the moon and stars,
the wounds of night that heal without sound,

again the luminous wind of morning that comes before the sun.
And, finally, without warning or desire,
the lonely and the feckless end.

Friday, November 14, 2014


I seem to be reading the late Ana María Matute in reverse chronological order, having started with her last, uncompleted, novel, Demonios familiares, before moving on to Paraíso inhabitado (Inhabited Paradise), which was published in 2008. Since she began publishing in the late 1940s there's a lot of territory left to be explored.

Like Demonios familiares, Paraíso inhabitado is set around the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and centers around a young girl in a conservative upper-class family, though in this case the girl — Adriana, or Adri — hasn't yet reached adolescence. The youngest of four children whose parents have separated, she leads a solitary existence, roaming the corridors of her home at night when the grown-ups (the "Giants," as she calls them) are asleep, and relying on her books, the family servants, and her imagination for companionship. She dreads school, where she is bullied, and has no friends until a Russian boy — Gavrila, or Gavi — appears outside one day playing ball with his dog. Despite her family's ambivalence, the two quickly become devoted friends, "Siamese twins" as they call themselves.

The narrator occasionally tips her hand that the events she is describing happened long in the past (and like a garrulous but fascinating old aunt she is sometimes guilty of repeating a point), but otherwise the story is told entirely from within Adriana's childhood perspective, carefully respecting her understanding (a very limited one) of the events that are beginning to take place outside her own horizons. The novel skirts the borders of the fantastic; there is, it's true, that unicorn that is occasionally seen to escape from the frame in which it hangs in the family home, but really nothing that can't be understood as being a realistic part of Adri's interior life, which is as rich as her external circumstances are confining. As she approaches adolescence, Adriana begins to rebel against the restraints under which she lives, in which "boys play with boys and girls play with girls" and even the deepest rifts are papered over with false propriety. That rebellion can be seen, perhaps, as symbolic defiance of the old, conservative Spain that was about to reassert itself, or simply as a reflection of Matute's own personal development; perhaps it is both.

Matute reportedly contemplated a sequel, to be called La rama normanda (The Norman Branch), but it was never written. Thus far, Paraíso inhabitado has not been translated into English.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Aurora Bernárdez (1920-2014)

Aurora Bernárdez, the first wife and literary executor of Julio Cortázar, has died in Paris. Though the couple divorced in the 1960s, after Cortázar began a relationship with Ugné Karvelis, they retained strong bonds of mutual respect and friendship, and upon the death of Cortázar's second wife, Carol Dunlap, in 1982, Cortázar assigned to Bernárdez the remaining half of his estate that was not already intended for her. Bernárdez cared for Cortázar during his final illness, and after his death oversaw the publication of his posthumous papers, including a splendid edition of his letters. More information is available at El País.