Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Fear


Ruth Otis Sawtell & Ida Treat:
Our greatest adventure we found at Mérigon. Mérigon, with its face to the sunny roadside and its back to the dark gorge where the Volp rushes past the Plantaurel, has been the haunt of something wild and sinister. The peasants called it la Peur, the Fear. All one summer it blasted the valley. Crops drooped, cattle died. There were cries in the night, whirring of wings where no birds flew. At last the men of Mérigon set out to hunt la Peur. Guns in hand they scoured the fields, the river, the rocks, until some one—with a silver bullet—shot it down. He brought back no trophy, only the vague word of having killed "something like a bird," but from that moment the blight was lifted from the countryside. To-day you can not find a man in Mérigon who will admit participating in that hunt. But there is something in the atmosphere of the valley suggesting that if la Peur should rise again, there would still be men to hear the flutter of its wings.

Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Compliments of the Dead



This appealing book is the product of two American women, Ruth Otis Sawtell (1895-1978), a noted anthropologist and academic (and, later, author of mystery novels), and Ida Treat (1899-1978), who was, among other things, a journalist, academic, and New Yorker contributor in the Shawn era. There couldn't have been many American women engaged in the serious study of the European Paleolithic during the Roaring Twenties, but there certainly were two, and their account of their caving adventures and fieldwork, though obscure now, is more substantial than the typical Americans-abroad fare of the day. It was handsomely produced by D. Appleton & Co. with lots of drawings* and photos of artifacts and cave art and a gold-stamped front cover (at least in my copy — there seems to be a variant with a plain red binding). It's out of date now (even the famous paintings of Lascaux were unknown when they wrote it), but still enjoyable.

My copy, which I bought at one book sale or another years ago, came with the business card shown below paper-clipped to the title page. Francis G. Wickware was an editor at Appleton, and may well have been the editor of the book (he had a background in geology and was probably of a scientific bent). If the book was a gift from him the circumstances are somewhat puzzling, as "the late" has been scrawled above his name. Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees was published in 1927, thirteen years before Wickware's death; perhaps just before he died he set a copy aside for someone he knew would be interested.


* The drawings were executed by Paul Vaillant-Couturier, one of the founders of the French Communist Party. He was married to Ida Treat at the time (they later divorced) and participated in the fieldwork.

Update: Below is the cover art for one of Ruth Sawtell Wallis's mystery novels. I suspect that this is not how she actually dressed during her excavations.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Memory Man



These three slender books by the Guatemalan Jewish writer Eduardo Halfon are published by Libros del Asteroide, a Barcelona-based company that publishes a wide range of modern literature, all in the same attractive format. Two of the three, or more accurately two and a half of the three, have been published in English translations by Bellevue Literary Press, along with another Halfon book (which I haven't read) entitled The Polish Boxer.


Each book succeeds as an individual work, but they're also part of a larger whole in which characters and events may be alluded to in one but more fully developed in another. Halfon, who spent part of his childhood in the US and is bilingual (though he doesn't do his own translations), has underlined the fluidity of his project by lifting sections of Signor Hoffman and combining them with the contents of Duelo for the US translation.


All three are narrated by someone named Eduard Halfon who is a Jewish-Guatemalan writer exploring the details and consequences of his personal and family history (but who should nevertheless not be confused with the author). Imagined events aren't necessarily deprecated in favor of real ones; thus Duelo (a title that can mean both "mourning" and "duel") centers around a half-remembered story about an uncle who drowned as a child in Lake Amatitlán. The fact that the drowning never happened both is and isn't less important than the ways it is (mis)remembered. The narrative begins in Guatemala but eventually travels to Florida and Germany (and to Italy in Poland in the English version).

The books have an understated force that becomes cumulative when they are read together (in whatever arrangement or order). Halfon doesn't bludgeon the reader, even when he deals with weighty matters (the Holocaust is a shadow over the entire enterprise), but instead prefers to work by indirection. His books echo each other but they also reverberate across entire fields of history.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Roma: Words Unspoken



I had been looking forward to seeing Alfonso Cuarón's Roma as soon as it made it to a local theatre, and it didn't disappoint. I'm not a movie critic and won't attempt a synopsis or analysis of the film*, but in a very quick summation it's about a few months in the lives of a well-to-do (but perhaps downwardly-mobile) Mexico City household around 1971. (Cuarón drew on his own family memories, and he has meticulously — even obsessively — recreated the texture of the world he grew up in.) At one crucial point the family's story intersects dramatically with the tumultuous course of the broader history of twentieth-century Mexico. The film is beautifully designed, acted, and shot (in black and white), and has the sweep and richness of a great novel. I'll be watching it again.

Pictured above is Cleodegaria (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), one of the family's Oaxacan servants and the film's emotional center. One criticism that has been leveled at the film is that we don't really get to learn much about what she thinks and feels, but I think that apparent silence is itself the point. (As it happens, I think we can get a fair idea of what she thinks and feels, but to do so requires attention to more than words.) Roma isn't your typical Hollywood have-it-both-ways movie in which all conflicts are resolved and all the characters overcome the limits of their personal histories, their class or racial backgrounds, and are at last fully revealed as equal agents. Being constrained and unheard is part of the social reality of Cleo's life (as it is, in different ways and degrees, of the lives of the family she serves); for a director to pretend otherwise would be a betrayal.

* For a full and thoughtful review, Alma Guillermoprieto's NYRB review, "The Twisting Nature of Love" is a good place to start.