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.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Good people

After the scarcely mitigated hell of the recently concluded election cycle, nothing would be easier (or, it would seem, more defensible) than to simply throw up one's hands and walk away in despair. And maybe we all do need to walk away, for a moment, just for the sake our mental health.

But on reflection, what really has changed? It's never been easy to change anything for the better in the US, and that will still be the case two years or ten years or twenty years in the future. We are what we are and that's the territory. Take a few deep breaths, then remind yourself that what you learned to be true and right when you first became of an age to understand these things is probably still true and right. We all learn from experience (or ought to) but the fundamentals are eternal: compassion is still better than cruelty and pettiness, truth and understanding are better than lies and ignorance, and extending one's horizons and empathy to encompass others and our own future is better than short-sightedness, greed, and xenophobia. End of sermon.

Below are links to three organizations that are directly involved in improving the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens (and non-citizens). None of their activities ought to be regarded as controversial (though to varying degrees no doubt they will be so regarded by some) and none of them are political in the sense of affiliating themselves with parties or candidates, but each of these organizations works, on a more-or-less modest scale and in its own way, to make a concrete and positive difference in people's lives. Check them out, or find one of your own.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Immokalee, FL)

Neighbors Link (Mt. Kisco, NY)

Workers Defense Project (Austin, TX)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Last words

No quiero ser un espectro más de esta casa...

When she died earlier this year, the Spanish writer Ana María Matute left behind an unfinished novel, Demonios familiares ("Family Demons," or conceivably "Familiar Demons"), which has just been published in Spain by Ediciones Destino. Though she was 88 at her death and had suffered from various ailments, it's quite clear from reading it, and from the brief "Nota final" by María Paz Ortuño, that she died with her wits and her gifts soundly intact.

Like much of Matute's work, Demonios familiares is set during the Spanish Civil War and centers on an adolescent girl, in this case one who would have been just a few years older than the author, who was born in 1925. As the story begins, Eva has just been retrieved from a convent school where she has been living with the intent of becoming a novice. The convent has been set ablaze by persons unknown and the fire is visible from her childhood home, where her father, a retired colonel who is confined to a wheelchair, lives accompanied only by a taciturn male servant, Yago, and an elderly cook and housekeeper, Magdalena.

Eva has grown up, motherless and almost friendless, in a household presided over by the colonel's mother, known to everyone as Madre. Madre is now dead but her presence lingers everywhere, especially in Eva's attic refuge, where her portrait is now stored. Restored to her home, and abandoning any thought of becoming a nun, Eva is now fiercely determined to gain her independence, but with the outbreak of full-scale war her world will be turned upside-down by the discovery of an injured parachutist — one of "the enemy" — in a nearby forest. The text ends abruptly, perhaps half-written.

There are familiar elements in this scenario: the old house inhabited by memories and retainers, the remote and despotic paterfamilias (though he is beginning to soften his grip), the love affair that cuts across battle lines, but their presence should not mislead us. Matute's inhabitating of Eva's thoughts and emotions, and her ability to resuscitate in Eva the spirits of her own childhood, keeps Demonios familiares fresh and original throughout.

There are two attitudes customarily taken when a writer leaves unfinished work behind; the first — and this applies particularly if the writer was elderly at her death — is that the work, being unfinished, is of interest more to scholars than to readers; the second is that it's a terrible shame that the work was never finished. Neither attitude is really appropriate in this case; no doubt the concluding chapters of the book would have provided additional pleasures, but there's something satisfying about it in its unfinished, indeterminate state. It's as if Matute's long career as a writer did not end but simply opened out into generous possibility.

The jacket art, by the way, is by the Canadian painter Michael Thompson. The book's epigraph is by the poet Luis Cernuda: "Todo lo que es hermoso tiene su instante, y pasa": everything that is beautiful has its moment, and passes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A poet looks back

Back in the late 1970s I read this translation by the late Gabriel Berns of what is actually only the first volume (comprising Books One and Two) of La arboleda perdida, the memoirs of the Spanish poet and artist Rafael Alberti, but I've only just now finished reading it in the original for the first time. The translation, published by the University of California Press in 1976, is now out-of-print, which is a bit of a shame although it doesn't really surprise me, Alberti long ago having been displaced in general literary circles as the one peninsular Spanish poet whom one is obligated to know by his contemporary and friend — how close a friend is a bit of a matter of dispute — Federico García Lorca.

In fairness, Lorca, in addition to having died the death of an unwilling martyr during the Spanish Civil War, was the better poet, but not by such a margin that Alberti's achievements should have been forgotten. It's true that Alberti wrote too much and that inevitably some of it is of uneven quality, but the best of what he wrote — the poetry collections Sobre los ángeles and Retornos de lo vivo lejano, as well as the present volume — still holds up rather well. For those interested there are a number of selections of his poetry in English, including volumes translated by Ben Belitt (badly), by Mark Strand (nicely), and by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno.

As for The Lost Grove, it covers the first decades of Alberti's life, beginning with his birth in Andalusia in 1902 and ending in 1931, that is, well before the Spanish Civil War, the outcome of which led to his long exile in South America and Italy during the Franco years. An ardent supporter of the republican side, Alberti would also become, and remain until his death, a committed communist, but that aspect of his life is in this volume largely held in abeyance; the focus here is on his childhood in Andalusia and his search for a vocation first as a painter and later, definitely, as an artist. By the end of his twenties he had gained a solid reputation, published a half-dozen volumes, and become acquainted with such prominent literary and artistic figures as Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, and at least three future Nobel laureates in Literature: Pablo Neruda, Vicente Aleixandre, and Juan Ramón Jímenez. He had also met the woman — the writer María Teresa León — who would remain his wife and creative partner for the rest of her life.

Much of Alberti's most interesting work was prompted by crisis and loss, whether it took the shape of bitter romantic disappointment, war, or exile. (As he tells us here, even his shift from art to poetry was prompted by an illness that kept him away from his easel.) The writing of this initial volume, which seems to have been done at widely-separated intervals over a long period, is shadowed but also enriched by his separation from his homeland, in particular his beloved Andalusian seacoast. Memoirs are inevitably self-serving, and at times Alberti appears to write with the freedom of assuming that he would never see many of his old friends and relations again. As it would happen, he outlived virtually all of them, as well as — by decades — the Franco regime, and survived to the age of ninety-six.

Gabriel Berns's translation is capable and reads smoothly. It clarifies (or footnotes) a number of allusions that would be likely to confuse the English-language reader, and in one case, perhaps due to the censorship of the original text (my copy of which is a Seix Barral reprint from the 1970s), it provides a fuller account than the Spanish version, specifically of a comical anecdote involving a purported relic in the possession of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos. One section of several pages has been left untranslated; it describes a notorious lecture ("performance" would be a better word) that Alberti gave to a women's literary society, leading to a minor scandal. The account of the incident, while perhaps not completely untranslatable, would undoubtedly remain somewhat opaque in English, and its omission is perhaps understandable.

In the coming months I hope to move on to the untranslated second volume of La arboleda perdida, which covers the period from 1931 to 1987.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Celebrating Andy Irvine

Andy Irvine has just released a live CD of his 70th-birthday bash two years ago, with a DVD promised soon, both available directly from Andy's website. Participants include members of several of the various combos Andy's been associated with, including Sweeney's Men, Planxty, Mozaik, and LAPD (which stands for Liam O'Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin, and Dónal Lunny), as well as Paul Brady, George Galiatsos, and Manolis Galiatsos. Most of the twelve songs have been recorded previously on other records, but the versions are strong, the sound excellent, and everyone's in great spirits. I recommend it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Things that fit in the hand.
Things that follow us, but only from a safe distance.
Things that are closer than they appear in the rear-view mirror.
Things that have no reflection when they are held up to a looking-glass.
Things that have not yet been described by science.
Things that are best left unspoken.
Things that have no names.
Things whose names have been forgotten.
Things people call you if they can't remember your name.
Things that are not bilaterally symmetrical.

Things that spin on an axis for a brief moment or two, then topple over and stop moving.
Things of potential utility during rainstorms.
Things that fell into a crack in the floorboards, and when they were at last retrieved, no one knew any longer to whom they belonged.
Things found floating in the water.
Things washed up on the shore.
Things found in the belly of a hippopotamus, in surprisingly good condition.
Things that make people blush, at first, or maybe always.
Things that left-handed people find it particularly difficult to use.
Things that can be shaken to make percussion instruments, at least until they break.
Things in my pockets.

Things that fell through a hole in my pockets, rolled into the street, and disappeared down a storm drain.
Things Mama don't allow.
Things that all came out in the wash.
Things the dog chewed.
Things you originally bought for yourself but decided to give as a present instead.
Things that can be folded repeatedly without tearing.
Things you never learned.
Things whose nature can not yet be publicly revealed, but which probably weren't worth the trouble in the first place.
Things supposedly nicknamed "George" by those who were there at the time.
Things nobody ought to ask you if they don't want to know.

Things that got moldy and had to be thrown out.
Things you shouldn't stick in your ears.
Things that only grow under beech trees, in the deepest part of the woods.
Things marked "unknown artist, c. 1930."
Things that aren't remembered.
Things that can't be placed.
Things that are different.
Things that aren't the same.
Things you don't have to declare when you cross the border.
Things that once released, can never be put back in the bottle.

Things you can't buy on Sundays in parts of Pennsylvania.
Things marked with several small perforations, perhaps from a BB gun.
Things someone stuffed in a brown paper bag and shoved in the back of a desk drawer, and that's the end of it.
Things lemons are good for.
Things that most likely got left behind when the neighbors moved out.
Things nobody knows.
Real things.
Things that never were.
Things that are gone.
Things that remain.