Saturday, November 24, 2012

More Katazome

According to the label, these katazome (stencil-dyed) calendar pages were "made by Haruo Kuriyama in Kyoto" and distributed by Yasutomo Co. in San Francisco. The artist who designed them, however, is almost certainly Takeshi Nishijima. The page for February is missing from this set.

Click on the katazome label below for earlier related posts.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Re-reading Camus

I found revisiting The Plague as La peste considerably more difficult than re-reading The Counterfeiters as Les faux-monnayeurs. I sailed through the first seventy pages or so, then bogged down, though more so in the philosophical passages, some of which are quite long, than in the narrative and dialogue sections. When I referred to Stuart Gilbert's translation, which I kept at hand as a crib (though I mostly relied, heavily, on a dictionary), I was surprised to find that, although it reads well as the English-language novel I first encountered it as some thirty-five years ago, it diverges rather radically from the terse style of the original, even more so than Dorothy Bussy's dated but generally faithful rendition of Gide.

It's hard to read La peste today without very quickly noticing the curious fact that although the novel is set in a predominately Arab country (Algeria), there are virtually no Arabs in it. There are also very few women, and the few that do appear are either kept largely offstage (Rieux's wife) or reduced to entirely passive roles (Rieux's mother, who when not doing housework mostly sits silently with her hands folded, and who is probably based on the author's mother). The half-dozen characters of any consequence — Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, Grand, Cottard, and Paneloux — are thus all males of European descent. To some extent these omissions are understandable, given what Camus set out to do, which was to write not a social novel but a moral and philosophical one in which the introduction of a social dimension might have been a distraction, although it still might be regarded as peculiar that Camus thought that he could only investigate moral and philosophical matters as they were refracted through one kind of lens.

In the end, however, even though Camus was in fact raised in Algeria and the lyrical passages in the book exude the particular ambience of the city of Oran, the novel is no more about Oran than Kafka's "The Great Wall of China" is about China. That La peste is, at least in part, an allegory about the German occupation of France during World War II has been widely noted, but one could be ignorant of that connection, or even ignorant of World War II, and still grasp the author's essential purpose, which was to consider how one might act in the face of a universe that is not made by us and does not operate for our benefit, but which accords us, or at least some of us, the freedom to make moral choices about how we will respond to that indifference.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Re-reading Gide

When I was in my late teens I went through an intense phase of devouring every single page of modern French literature I could get my hands on. In a fairly short period I read essentially everything that was available in translation by Camus, all of Sartre's novels and plays (but none of his philosophy), the major works of André Gide, and all 2,000 pages or so of Roger Martin du Gard's The Thibaults and Summer 1914, as well as various bits of Malraux, Cocteau, Artaud, Ionesco, and others I've no doubt forgotten about. (Did I actually read, or just own, a copy of Mauriac's Viper's Tangle?) Eventually I took two years of French in college, but I never got to the point of trying any of the literature in the original, and in any case by then I was moving on to other things, especially Spanish and Latin American writers. I read some Zola, Balzac, and Flaubert in and out of college, but after 1980 or so I pretty much went cold turkey on French lit. Over the years, as I needed to thin out my library to make room, I donated just about everything, only retaining The Counterfeiters, The Plague, and the doorstop-sized Martin du Gards, which had been out-of-print and devilishly hard to find in the first place. I put a lot of effort into reading Spanish and let my French go, convincing myself that I just didn't really like the language. As for the literature, the time when the century-old struggles between Catholics and positivists or gossip about the philosophical debates between Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir could be viewed as crucial cultural concerns seemed to be long past, and later movements in French letters, most of which appeared to be centered more around philosophy or psychoanalysis, didn't appeal to me.

I can't say that it was entirely chance that led me not only to revisit The Counterfeiters but to attempt to read it in French, even though it's true that I would not have done so had I not found an ancient Gallimard edition on a shelf in the foreign-language section of a used bookstore. The truth is, I'd been thinking about the book on and off, and I had also been thinking about testing out my French on something, which is why I had made a point of looking on that particular shelf. The Gide was, in fact, the only book there that would have been likely to appeal to me. It was fated, clearly; I bought the book home and put it on a shelf for a few weeks while I finished some other things. Then, with some trepidation, a paperback dictionary (which turned out to be excellent for my purposes), and a copy of Dorothy Bussy's translation to use as a crib as needed, I dived in.

I'll leave it to a psycholinguist to explain how one can neglect a half-learned second or third language for thirty years or more without losing it altogether; in my case I suspect that my Spanish, which I work at fairly conscientiously, may have supported the underlying grammar. That, and the fact that English is fairly permeated with French loan words, probably made the difference. Gide writes clearly and is not particularly slangy; I suspect I might have more trouble with a contemporary writer. But in any case, making it through the novel's nearly 500 pages was hard work, but it was rewarding hard work. I rediscovered the qualities that had given me a fondness for the book when I first read it in translation, and found nuances (and one or two excised passages) that deepened my appreciation. In short, a successful experiment, which I hope to repeat soon with La peste, which happens to be the only other novel I currently own in both English and French.

As to Gide's novel itself, although it is set no later than 1907 and was written in the 1920s, I found that it held up quite well. Gide's analysis of character is profound and plausible throughout (though perhaps slightly less so in the case of some of the female characters), and except for one conversation about psychoanalysis there is little in the book that now seems glaringly dated. The book's structural innovations, which apparently gave the author no end of trouble, still seem fresh and even daring after several generations of postmodernism. This is, after all, a book in which there is an omniscient narrator but much of the action is depicted through the journal of one of the characters, Édouard, and in which parts of the narrative are presented to us as flashback as the journal is read by someone else; it is a book in which that same Édouard is writing a novel, also called The Counterfeiters, which he is basing on the events that take place around him; it is a book in which Édouard reads aloud a few pages of a draft of that novel (complete with ridiculous personal names — Audibert and Eudolfe) to another character in part to find out how he will react so that he can include that reaction in the book he is writing. It is, in its final pages, a book whose violent climax — horrifying but not really surprising, since Gide has been pointing us towards it — so mystifies Édouard that he decides to omit it from his own novel, since he can make no sense of the motivation that lies behind it. The novel shifts focus radically but seemingly without effort; major characters at the beginning (Vincent, Lady Griffith) are ignored for hundreds of pages and then dispatched summarily, while characters seen at first only obliquely, like Laura, emerge into the spotlight only to recede again. Even Olivier and Bernard, the two schoolfellows with whom the book begins, become less important as the book winds on, while Édouard, whom we barely meet for the first hundred pages, becomes more and more the center of gravity. Somehow Gide manages to keep all these balls in the air and still pull it off without letting the machinery interfere with what is, in many respects, a solidly realistic, almost Dickensian, narrative.

As for Gide's influence, re-reading it now I see the traces of Les faux-monnayeurs where I would not necessarily have expected it. It almost certainly had an effect on Julio Cortázar, who translated L'immoraliste and speaks admiringly of Gide in his letters; Édouard's ruminations on the technique of the novel are echoed by the novelist-philosopher Morelli in Hopscotch. It surely influenced The Empire City, the messy but often brilliant novel by Paul Goodman (another admirer of Gide); and its erotic and family dynamics, as well as Vincent's descent into depravity in Africa, may well have influenced Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. And since then? Is Gide much read in the US today, outside of the academy? I honestly don't know. But I suspect that even after the hyperkinetic experimentation of Pynchon, Barth, and David Foster Wallace, this cagey novel still has lessons to teach.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Let the Wind Blow

Personally, I'm all for heading for the nearest high ground, but I do like this new song by Zachary Richard.

The CD version of this song (on Le fou) seems to be slightly different. Some of the "musicians" in the video are apparently actors.