Sunday, January 11, 2015

Visiting professor

Clases de literatura: Berkeley, 1980, published in 2013, presents the transcription of a series of seminars that Julio Cortázar conducted (in Spanish) during one of his infrequent visits to the United States. Cortázar was not a professional academic (he had done some teaching in his native Argentina before emigrating to France), and was quite upfront about being neither a literary critic nor a literary theorist. For that reason, some of the ideas preserved here, such as his thoughts about the differences between the fantastic and the realist short story, may seem a bit half-formed and arbitrary, but not so his comments about his own works and writing methods, which include a discussion of Rayuela that is likely to be seen as indispensable to any future readings of that much-discussed work, even if some of the points he makes are repeated elsewhere. Here, for example, is his explanation of how that novel's interpolated "expendable chapters" were put into sequence:
I ought to say that many critics have devoted many hours to analyzing what technique I might have used to mix in the chapters and present them in their irregular order. My technique wasn't what the critics have imagined: my technique was that I went to the house of a friend [Eduardo Jonquières] who had a kind of large studio the size of this room, I put all of the chapters on the floor (each one was fastened with a paper clip, a fastener) and I started walking around through the chapters leaving little alleyways and letting myself follow lines of force: where a chapter connected well with a fragment that was made up of, for instance, a poem by Octavio Paz (one is quoted), immediately I attached a pair of numbers and went on connecting them, assembling a package that I hardly modified. I thought that in that manner chance — what gets called chance — was assisting me and that I had to let chance come into play a little: my eye might notice something that was one meter away but not see something that was two meters away which I would only see later. I don't think I was mistaken: I had to modify two or three chapters because the action started to go in reverse instead of forwards, but overall this ordering into different levels worked in a sufficiently satisfactory manner for me and the book was published in that form.
(I have changed two verbs in the above translation from the present tense to the past in the interests of consistency.)

Each seminar included a question-and-answer session in which Cortázar was asked about various topics, from the fairly predictable (the Padilla affair) to the unexpected (whether he wrote his works in Spanish or in French), but also prompting interesting evaluations of such figures as Boris Vian and José Lezama Lima. The transcription includes various excerpts from Cortázar's writings which he read to the class, one or two of which I don't recognize. No word thus far on a possible translation into English.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Guru and Disciple (Yuri Arbatsky)

From 1933 to 1942, the composer and ethnomusicologist Yuri Arbatsky traveled in the Balkans, studying and recording the folk music traditions of the region. Much of the material he collected was confiscated and lost during World War II, but after the war his dissertation, "Das Mazedonische Tupanspiel," publication of which had been forbidden by the Gestapo, was translated into English and published by the Newbery Library in Chicago as Beating the Tupan in the Central Balkans. Though most of the book deals with musicological arcana, the following section, in which he recounts his apprenticeship with a sort of Albanian version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, an elderly master of the tupan (a kind of drum), may provide some amusement.
The facts as given in the following chapters are the result of my studies with the folkmusician [sic] and famous tupanist Mehmed of Spinadija near Prizren. These studies were made, with certain interruptions, in the years 1933-1937. […]

During my period of study with Mehmed I kept a detailed diary of my progress as a folkmusician, although I had no intention of making a special record of this relationship. I must confess that, being “spoiled” — Mehmed conferred that designation on everyone who had concerned himself with the study of Occidental art music — I did not at first take his teachings seriously. What could a primitive man teach me about music? With the first lessons, however, I began to perceive the subtleties of his instruction and the scope of the material to be mastered. All of my former studies and my professional practice of years were useless here. I began to work in earnest, and eventually advanced to a proper understanding and respect for the art of folkmusic. As a novice, and one even more handicapped than the native beginner who had been aquainted with the peculiarities of this great folkart since childhood, I worked at a great disadvantage. For even the untrained native, through constant contact with the music of his region, was furnished with some general knowledge of it.

When I began my studies with Mehmed I fancied that I had an excellent knowledge of this kind of music, to which I had often listened before. Thus my irritation was considerable when, on requesting him to play something to which I would “beat time” on the tupan, Mehmed, after smilingly taking up his zurla [a wind instrument] and beginning to blow, put aside his instrument and told me with deepest contempt that I was a dunce. I had always held my own playing in high esteem; I had often listened to how the tupan was beaten; and had of course read many books on Balkan folkmusic. But I was just beginning to discover that there existed other rules of which nothing is written in any book, and that the tupanist, in his playing, is bound by principles unknown in the Occidental science of music. I had yet to be convinced that it was insufficient to beat the tupan in the way I had seen and heard, merely by imitation. It is, indeed, hard for a person brought up in the Occidental tradition of art music not to consider these musical performances as primitive. How could I suspect that in this “indescribable din” lay concealed a wealth of musical wisdom?

In Mehmed's eyes I was just a musical dunce. When I urged him to tell me why, he only repeated again and again, “You are spoiled! You are spoiled!” When I pressed him for an explanation he remained mute. He was either unwilling or unable to explain his judgment of my abilities. I decided to become his pupil — and was flatly refused, in spite of my repeated entreaties. I offered him payment for his instruction, but that was the worst approach I could have made. He became furious and shouted: “You are my friend and I will never accept anything from you! But you are spoiled and will never be able to learn anything.” Nevertheless I finally succeeded in persuading him. He agreed to teach me, for the sake of God, but I had to promise never to resist his methods and “to obey him blindly.”

With the very first lesson I began to see how little I knew. I was told to beat with the drumstick on the tupan at regular intervals. This is usually the simplest of musical performances, if the intervals are short; but it is extremely difficult it the intervals are thirty to forty seconds apart. It was beating of this kind which Mehmed first asked me to do.

Needless to say, the first lesson was a complete failure. Yet I was warned for the second lesson. I looked at my watch — unperceived — and succeeded! Mehmed was puzzled and obviously content with my progress; he said that I might accomplish something after all.

With this measure of success behind me, I exercised myself thoroughly in the beating with long intervals. It took me about eight months until I had mastered this exercise which native musicians generally learn in two or three weeks. Moreover, I still looked at my watch during the lessons, but Mehmed was not aware of it. The lessons took place every day, for myself as well as for the native pupils. When Mehmed had made sure that I was able to beat slowly in regular intervals, he explained to me that there are short and longer beats and told me to perform a short beat and a longer one alternately. To my question about what difference there was between a short and a longer beat he was not able to give an answer; he merely ordered me to play.

Reflecting that a short beat might have the value of one unit, and a longer one that of two units, I began to play accordingly. Mehmed glanced at my compassionately, but did not give the least explanation as to why the intervals of the beats were wrong. He only said, “Now you can see how spoiled you are!”

I became impatient and was about to abandon his teaching when he reminded me of my promise to work obediently and never to offer any resistance. I then asked him to demonstrate to me on the tupan what he meant by short and longer beats. He only replied that this would be undignified — whether on my part or on his I could not tell. Nor did I dare ask another question, for he had become angry.

Finally, however, he took my hand and began to guide it. As it was hard for me to find out the real length of the beats, I again resorted to my watch for help. Thus I learned that the short and the longer beats had the proportion of 1: 1 1/2 to each other. Now I knew the proportion, and with the help of my watch, to Mehmed's great astonishment, I could perform correctly. Later I learned that the use of short beats and longer ones constituted a fixed musical conception among the natives, not requiring any explanation. […]

My studies with Mehmed lasted about three years. What deep and extensive knowledge must be at the disposal of the folkmusicians of great style who study for ten years or more!
Arbatsky comments on his tutor: “Mehmed himself, whose age was difficult to determine — he was then about eighty years old — declared that he had never attended a folkmusic school. When still a youth he had been taught by an old folkmusician who in his time had attended such a school in Koritza. But it was impossible to find out when this had occurred, since the Albanians consider a man of forty still a youth, and sometimes one of sixty a young man.… Mehmed at eighty did not in the least think of himself as an old man! He was only a man in the years of his maturity. Shortly before I made his acquaintance, he had married a girl of thirteen, who even gave birth to children of his. Who knows how long he would have lived had he not been killed in 1938 by a bullet while crossing the frontier west of Djevdelija!”

Arbatsky failed to learn longevity from his master; he died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 52.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Palace of the King of Night (Introduction)

In the spring and summer of 2007 I wrote a narrative entitled The Palace of the King of Night, described in its subtitle as "a novella, or folly." Later, when I phased out the website where I had originally posted it, I elected not to transfer it over to my current blog. Not being inclined to revise or or even re-read it at that particular moment, I suspected that the length and likely artistic shortcomings of the piece would render it a distraction from what I was interested in doing at my new address. For whatever it's worth, I have decided to make it available now, in installments, but spun off onto a separate blog [here].

The novella originated, as does much of the (relatively little) fiction that I write, in a dream or half-dream, and the opening scene and perhaps a little more derive directly from that source. Once the story got going, however, I more or less consciously steered it according to a preconceived plan, and it became a kind of ersatz Grail legend, set not in a forest, as is traditional, but in an arid landscape that perhaps was also a kind of underworld or land of the dead. The peculiar artwork of Charles-Frédéric Soehnée (see above) was a partial inspiration, at least for atmosphere, and their were faint traces of what I knew about ancient Egyptian mythology, which was (and remains) very little.

I am far happier composing shorter forms (a few paragraphs) and so the writing of the novella was both exhilarating and grueling. I'm afraid its deficiencies will be all too evident, but perhaps something of what impelled me to keep at it will come across. I dislike reading long texts on a screen, and ideally I would print this up as a chapbook, give the copies away to the twenty or so people who would be polite enough to pretend to read it, and leave it at that. Until I get around to doing so, here it is, warts and all.

Monday, December 29, 2014


Two passages from Peter Blegvad's "Numinous Objects and Their Manufacture":
Objects proliferate as never before, but they are mostly dead husks, the shells of things, wherein no daemon resides. We own them merely, or covet them, we are not nourished. Meanwhile, the fundamental appetite for numinous objects grows ravenous. Never mind that it remains unconscious in most citizens and unacknowledged by the authorities. Only numinous objects can make possible the communication between people and so-called "dead matter" which must be established if we wish to avert calamity...

The numinous objects which already exist in our environment are easily overlooked by our harassed and addled species. Education is the remedy, teaching people of all ages to resist distraction and become sensitive to the subtle radiation emanating from these items (which often masquerade as common refuse on the street). I imagine students returning, bright-eyed and exultant, from expedition to dumps, factories, zoos, firing-ranges, hospitals, quarries, ships, farms, forests, cinemas, circuses, cemeteries, and recording studios with their eclectic spoil. Objects thus collected would be tested, graded and catalogued before being made available to the public from a chain of lending libraries.
Excerpted from Kew. Rhone. (Uniformbooks 2014).

What is Kew. Rhone.? 1) "A phantom or spiritual skyscraper which is only visible to specific individuals, briefly, at a specific time and from a specific vantage, though these coordinates are never the same twice"; 2) a map of Kew, overlain with a map of the Rhone river (or vice versa); 3) an anagram of (among other things) KNOWHERE; 4) a 1977 long-playing record credited to John Greaves, Peter Blegvad, and Lisa Herman, or subsequent re-issues thereof in various formats, some of which are no longer supported by 21st-century operating systems; 5) a newly issued companion book to said record, published by Uniformbooks in the UK, and containing contributions by Blegvad (who is credited as the author), Greaves, and Herman as well as other participants, observers, and appreciators, "the aim being," in Blegvad's words, "to illuminate without dispelling the mystery of a work designed to resist interpretation even as it invites it."

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, Typography & 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.