Friday, November 25, 2005

The Mortician's Daughter

I got a chance to see Freedy Johnston live the other night. I had seen him once earlier, playing with his longtime lead guitarist Cameron Greider about six or seven years ago; this time he was on his own in a small club.

The show was a little ragged at times. He began it distracted by his dog, who was just outside the door, started playing with the capo on the wrong fret once or twice and had to start a song over, forgot the lyrics to “Dolores,” and at one point stopped the show for about ten minutes while he replaced a nine volt in his electronic tuner. But he was relaxed and in good spirits and eventually hit his stride.

On his records you don't at first notice how effective a guitarist Freedy is, although it's there if you listen carefully. As he's made clear in interviews, he doesn't pretend to be a accomplished lead player, but his playing is original and assured; he makes the most of a few well-chosen, deceptively simple-sounding licks and strums neatly tailored to his own compositions.

I've always liked this song from its original appearance on Can You Fly in 1992. He played it live this time, with a somewhat different, freer arrangement starting at the beginning of the second verse. After the show I bought a copy of Freedy's self-issued CD Live at 33 1/3 from his wife. The version there is very similar to what he played the other night, and I think, even better than the one originally recorded. If you don't realize that the first two lines are supposed to be funny you're not getting this song, but for all that it's a sweet, sad, and I think very canny and beautiful piece. A little mysterious too: has the girl died? If so, it neatly folds together the song's little ironies of sex and death.
I used to love the mortician's daughter
We drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids
I grieve tonight over this letter
My tears dissolve an image from the careful ink

Her father stands in the open door
He's waiting for her
There's a storm blowing across the lake
It's late summer
On the broken step is a cardboard box full of wilted flowers
She whispers in my burning ear
It doesn't matter

I used to love the mortician's daughter
We rolled in the warm grass by the boneyard fence
Her skin so white
The first leaves falling
This long forgotten night I am there again

Her father stands in the open door
He's waiting for her
There's a ribbon printed with last respects
Blowing down the gutter
And the rain comes in, she drops my hand, she's turning, laughing
And I used to love the mortician's daughter

I used to love the mortician's daughter
We drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids
There's a lonely dove out on the telephone wire
I turn my head and she flies away

Monday, November 07, 2005


Whatever things this notebook may be, at various times, and despite the title, it certainly is not a dream journal, an undertaking that would be of little interest to me and almost certainly of even less interest to anyone else. But from time to time material from dreams — much transformed — does find its way into these pages. It receives no special privileges, it has to wait its turn like everyone else, but I don't refuse it entry if it has something to offer. (Mostly, it doesn't.) My rat dream had no special merit other than being bloody and vivid, but bloody and vivid ought to count for a little, at least, especially at the end of a night of insomnia due to coffee consumed too late in the afternoon, so here goes:

We were in a house and the rats were trying to join us, which was not particularly acceptable as far as we were concerned. There were a great number of them, and they were making their way in by wriggling in through open windows and under doors. A good many had already gotten into the house and were scrambling around and engaging in the usual rat pastimes, mostly unpleasant ones like looking for infants to eat (we didn't have any) and spreading epidemic disease. We were beating them back with brooms and shovels, all the while trying to close up the gaps that were allowing them entry, and they were just as energetically fighting back, biting and scrambling and leaping onto our shoulders. The battle seemed to be going our way, at least in the room we were in. There was a good deal of rat blood spraying the windows and upholstery and our clothes (I did warn you it was bloody) and there were crushed rats falling out the windows and scattered underfoot on the carpet around us. We hadn't suffered any significant casualties, so the dream ended on an upbeat note.

I actually have nothing whatsoever against rats, as long as they stay out of the house.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I was outside the other evening watching dragonflies in the back yard. There seemed to be about a half a dozen of them, though it was hard to tell since they all looked pretty much alike at the speed they were moving. They were big ones, real bruisers; they hung around for fifteen minutes or so until it got dark, darting around the yard in roughly circular patterns, stopping on a dime and starting again, rising and falling. All to no purpose I could detect, though since they didn't seem to be mating I suppose they were hunting gnats, of which there were a few in the air — their vision must be pretty sharp. There's no water nearby, which means they must have flown at least a couple of hundred yards to get here, and they almost appeared to be making a point of keeping close and not straying into the neighbors' yards. They seemed to have arrived together and when they disappeared they did so at the same time, though as far as I could tell they ignored each other while they were here. They paid me no attention at all. I kept expecting one to land and rest so I could get a better look, but none ever did.

A few nights after, at a later hour, I was walking home and saw a couple of bats hunting insects. They flew low enough, as they flitted across the sidewalk, that they could have collided with me or another pedestrian, but of course they didn't. Our paths and intentions never intersected; we crossed through the same coordinates in space, separated by a few seconds time and millions of years of divergent evolution, our senses sharpened in different ways, mutually indifferent and unreachable. We are a nuisance to them, sometimes, but also a benefit: these spend their daylight hours in the hidden spaces beneath the eaves of a church across the street. Likewise, they pose problems for us — they can carry disease — but cut down on the bugs as well.

It took our own species a couple of million years to master flight, and even then it was not with our bodies, but with our tools. We look on that as one of our greatest achievements, which from an engineering standpoint it certainly was. But considering what came next — the ability to destroy each other long-distance, en masse, the fact that now nobody, really, has anywhere to hide — it's hard to avoid the suspicion that there are some responsibilities we're just too young to understand.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


A bullfrog hops out from under a hedge, croaking loudly. A few feet away, another emerges and begins to sound off in turn. A third frog — this one evidently a female and the object of the attentions of the first two — peers out of the hedge, listening. Suddenly, the first male hobbles over to the second; they stare at each other for a moment, their croaking reaching a crescendo, then they begin to tussle ferociously. After a bit of grappling the first frog bites open the chest of the second and tears out his heart, which he then releases. The second frog desperately grabs for the heart and swallows it, but it's too late; after a second or two he collapses feebly and dies.

At least, that's the kind of dream you have after you've been to see Grizzly Man for a second time.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bob Dylan's Dream

How many a year has passed and gone,
And many a gamble has been lost and won,
And many a road taken by many a friend,
And each one I've never seen again.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain,
That we could sit simply in that room again.
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat,
I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.
In May 1962 Columbia Record releases The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the second LP by a folksinger in his early twenties, and the first to be made up largely of his own compositions. Despite high expectations for the record — Columbia executive John Hammond is said to be convinced that Dylan could be the “next big thing” in the pop music business — the album's sales are initially modest, then quickly plummet. There are one or two polite but puzzled reviews in folk magazines (“original folk songs?”), but most listeners fail to connect with the record and dismiss it as, at best, a mere curiosity. The trade press take it as evidence that the “folk revival” has peaked and will not be a significant factor in the the record business in the coming years.

A few months later a single by an obscure Norwegian polka combo becomes a fluke hit, igniting a decade-long infatuation with the genre. Kids put down guitars and strap on accordions; rival gangs in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Newark form polka bands, competing with each other to see who can play the fastest and dress the flashiest. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan never earns back its advance, and Columbia scraps plans for a follow-up. The folksinger still plays coffee houses for a while, but to smaller and smaller audiences; people are moving on, and he begins to see the writing on the wall. He waits tables, sometimes in the same clubs he used to play, and does some office work as a temp.

Around the time of JFK's second inaugural he moves up to the Catskills, where he becomes part owner, and later sole owner, of a bicycle shop. His records are out of print, though for a few music collectors and eccentrics they eventually achieve a kind of cult status. Now and then somebody tracks him down at the bike shop, where he acknowledges his identity, autographs an album cover or two, and cheerfully gives directions to a nearby trailhead. He keeps a guitar in the back room and will bring it out if requested, but nobody in town seems to have heard of him — he's just Bob from “Bob's Bikes” — or to care that he once cut a couple of records. Once in a while he heads down to the city and joins one old friend or another on a club stage again, just for a couple of songs. He divorces once, marries again, has a couple of daughters. Sometimes he sits on the front steps of his house playing and singing for the kids in the neighborhood.

In 1978 the owner of a small specialty label calls him up to talk about re-releasing his old records, if the label will sell the rights. Dylan agrees to write a paragraph or two to add to the liner notes. Asked if he has any new material he hesitates a bit and then says yes, he's got a few songs, not too many. He goes into a studio — just a little place in somebody's basement — and makes another record. It doesn't sell many copies, but the owner of the label is satisfied, the New York Times gives it a nice capsule review a few months after release, and an old friend who owns a part interest in a club persuades him to do a couple of shows.

He gets a little paunchy and his hair thins out. For his fiftieth birthday a bunch of friends and neighbors throw him a birthday party in the backyard of his home. He's a grandfather now; he takes out the guitar and sings a song he's just written about his new granddaughter, and his neighbors are surprised to hear how well he plays the instrument. He tells a few stories about the old days in the Village, about what it was like to make a record in a big studio in New York.

He sells the bike shop to a younger employee and becomes the arts reporter for a local weekly. As his sixtieth birthday approaches a couple of his songs are picked up and covered by some young kids in Oregon who are making their first record. The record does well and the royalty check is a nice surprise. After a writer for Rolling Stone does a profile of him one of his old records is re-released again and gets a little airplay on some college stations. There's talk of making a new one, if he can find the time and if he can get the new songs into shape.

He likes to sit on the porch in the evenings, while his wife is cleaning up after dinner, and stare off through the pines at the lake in the distance. Every now and then a black bear ambles into the back yard, just at twilight, sniffing around for garbage. Some nights he takes the guitar out and plays just for the bear.

Postscript: Some time after writing the above, I found this passage in Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One: “I don't know what everybody was fantasizing about but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream.”

Monday, July 18, 2005

At the Mountains of Madness

It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.

H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

I managed to find a paperback edition of At the Mountains of Madness in an American-style drugstore on our way to the Savoie restaurant, where we are now banqueting on oysters. The cover displays a fur-covered skull with two yellowed, rodent-like teeth and from the hollow eye-sockets there burn two pairs of bright eyes belonging to formless Kafkaesque beasties. A furry worm is crawling in and out of the sockets.

Josef Škvorecký, The Engineer of Human Souls
I remember that cover, which, if I'm not mistaken, belonged to a Ballantine edition in circulation in the early 1970s. I first saw it in a paperback bookstore in central Connecticut; it was the kind of place where much of the stock — the Lovecraft being among the exceptions — consisted of books whose covers had been torn off and returned to the publisher, the subsequent sale of which was a contractual violation. There were other Lovecraft titles in the same rack, with similarly gruesome cover treatments. I don't think I had ever heard of the author; they certainly didn't teach his books in high school (we endured Catcher in the Rye instead), and nobody I knew read Lovecraft the way some of us read Vonnegut or (wince) Richard Brautigan. I wouldn't catch up to him until years later, and then just a little here, a little there, until, eventually, and probably in fact because of the allusion to it in Škvorecký's novel, I read At the Mountains of Madness, which I suspect is the only Lovecraft I would go out of my way to read a second time — as I lately have done.
"A kind of hack writer," I say. He imitated Poe. Wrote macabre stuff. In fact he wrote only a few brilliant pages in his life. Only one scene."

The Engineer of Human Souls
Today, there's even a Lovecraft volume in the Library of America, which actually is pretty funny considering how awful a writer he was, even when he was at his best. Lovecraft isn't for everybody, and I wouldn't want to read too much of him, but it's impossible to deny the pleasures his work can provide. He may have been a sick, racist creep as a human being, but then so was Poe, his great model. Both vipers are safely dead ("aeon-dead," I can hear Lovecraft intone) and their venom has lost its potency.

At the Mountains of Madness narrates a scientific expedition to Antarctica during which the explorers — first an advance contingent, which meets a horrible end, then a smaller party consisting of the narrator and a man named Danforth — encounter the remnants of a vast civilization ancient beyond all human measure. That civilization had been created millions of years previously by a species of migrants from space, beings on the order of giant sentient echinoderms, whom Lovecraft calls "the Old Ones." It had collapsed long before our own epoch under the twin pressures of the advancing Antarctic ice and the revolt of their slave creatures, the immense, hideous Shoggoths. Or something like that. It doesn't do to get bogged down in the "mythos," though some people have done just that and gone on to make a career of it. The bottom line is that something hideous, old, and very dangerous, something that would much better have been left undisturbed, gets disinterred from the ice, and that something even worse is out there, somewhere, lurking around.

And of course the damned dogs are hip to it from the beginning. Lovecraft repeatedly hammers us in the head with the fact that the dogs that accompany the advance party know that there's something really nasty about the specimens their masters dig up. The narrator quotes the wireless transmissions that relay the findings to the base camp:
Dogs growing uneasy as we work...

Having trouble with dogs. They can't endure the new specimen, and would probably tear it to pieces if we didn't keep it at a distance from them...

Have brought all to surface, leading off dogs to distance. They cannot stand the things...

Job now to get fourteen huge specimens to camp without dogs, which bark furiously and can't be trusted near them.
He pounds it in so mercilessly that it's actually a relief when we find out that the dogs have been slaughtered by the same unknown horror that has wiped out the advance party — but no, because in fact there are more dogs with the narrator and Danforth when they find the ravaged remains of the camp, and those dogs aren't very happy about the situation either.

The climax of the novel occurs after the narrator and Danforth reach the site, find the remains of their companions, explore the ruined megalopolis (which features miraculously preserved sculptural friezes that, with a cursory inspection, reveal the entire history of the civilization in great detail), and find the savaged bodies of several of the Old Ones near the entrance to a vast subterranean sea. It dawns on the pair that the re-animated Old Ones, as terrible as they are, are not the worst thing they have to fear. There are, incongruously, some rather cute giant blind albino penguins hanging about at this point, but it's the Shoggoths, slayers of the Old Ones and harbingers of the ultimate evil that dwells in the distant, unexplored mountains beyond, that are the real menace. The recognition scene is, perhaps uniquely in all literature, conveyed entirely in olfactory terms:
We realised ... that our retreat from the foetid slime-coating on those headless obstructions [the butchered Old Ones], and the coincident approach of the pursuing entity, had not brought us the exchange of stenches which logic called for. In the neighbourhood of the prostrate things that new and lately unexplainable foetor had been wholly dominant; but by this time it ought to have largely given place to the nameless stench associated with those others. This it had not done — for instead, the newer and less bearable smell was now virtually undiluted, and growing more and more poisonously insistent each second.
Follow that? So at last we find that the snark is a boojum, a creature that only Terry Gilliam could ever animate, half train, half sea-cucumber, a "foetid, unglimpsed mountain of slime-spewing protoplasm whose race had conquered the abyss and sent land pioneers to re-carve and squirm through the burrows of the hills..." — something in fact remarkably like Karl Rove.

To write this badly — and please believe me when I say that I write this without a trace of condescension or irony — requires more than immense talent; it requires absolute genius, divinely inspired, and it is why At the Mountains of Madness is a great bad book — a thing infinitely preferable to any number of bad great books.

When Škvorecký published The Engineer of Human Souls, he selected as chapter titles the names of a select handful of representative American and British writers — Poe, Hawthorne, Conrad, etc. — but ended the novel with "Lovecraft," a bizarre but, I think, entirely defensible choice. Lovecraft deserves his place in the pantheon for making a virtue of awfulness — in both senses of the word.
"Lovecraft didn't have a great range of fantasy, but what he had was intense. It was more like an obsession than a fantasy. Like all prophets."

"What did he prophesy?" asks Irene incuriously...

"The same as all prophets, Nicole. Doom."

The Engineer of Human Souls
Skvorecky quotes one final passage, presumably the one "brilliant" scene cited earlier. It's a dreadful and wonderful bit of writing, a splendid mixture of lyricism and hogwash. At the close of the book the narrator and Danforth fly away to safety, but not before looking back and, in the process, catching a glimpse of the unexplored high peaks in the far distance.
There now lay revealed on the ultimate white horizon behind the grotesque city a dim, elfin line of pinnacled violet whose needle-pointed heights loomed dreamlike against the beckoning rose color of the western sky. Up toward this shimmering rim sloped the ancient table-land, the depressed course of the bygone river traversing it as an irregular ribbon of shadow. For a second we gasped in admiration of the scene's unearthly cosmic beauty, and then vague horror began to creep into our souls. For this far violet line could be nothing else than the terrible mountains of the forbidden land — highest of earth's peaks and focus of earth's evil; harborers of nameless horrors and Archaean secrets; shunned and prayed to by those who feared to carve their meaning; untrodden by any living thing on earth, but visited by the sinister lightnings and sending strange beams across the plains in the polar night — beyond doubt the unknown archetype of that dreaded Kadath in the Cold Waste beyond abhorrent Leng, whereof primal legends hint evasively.
Škvorecký omits the final sentence of the passage, which reads, "We were the first human beings ever to see them — and I hope to God we may be the last." Yeah, well, we all know how that turns out.

Sunday, May 29, 2005


He sits alone at the table with his notebook closed in front of him, now and then sipping the coffee from a paper cup. It's a Friday night, around ten, and the place is packed. They all seem to be the same age, more or less, fifteen to twenty, maybe a few in their early twenties, here and there a mom with a couple of daughters. This must be the one place to hang, for miles around, or how could there be so many of them?

A good two-thirds of them are girls, circled around tables in clusters of five or six, maybe with one boy among them. Sometimes a couple of guys come in by themselves and get on line, but they don't stay, they just get their coffee and drive off again. All told maybe sixty or eighty indoors, a dozen or two at tables outside, and more — he can't see how many — just milling around the parking lot, talking and laughing. The girl sitting at a table outside, for instance, the slight girl with the flip of straight brown hair nearly reaching down to one eye, whom he notices each time he lifts his eyes to the window — has she really been laughing and talking without interruption for an hour?

For their part the guys mostly don't say much, they just listen and watch, their posture a little stiff, uttering a few words now and then. He can't hear anything that's being said; all around the room the conversations are mixing together, indistinguishable, without ever a gap of silence, and over it all there's music of some sort — he can't make out the songs or doesn't know them anyway — drifting over the whole room, providing a kind of continuo.

He's a little surprised how few couples there seem to be. One or two are obvious, hugging or horsing around, and no doubt there are others who keep it to themselves, who maybe aren't quite comfortable yet with being physical around their other friends. They're young, after all, there will be time to come for all of that.

He is not always solemn, as he is now. He has his moments of joy. He thinks, I feel those moments more deeply than these kids do because I know how fugitive they are and they do not, yet. But no, the kids really do seem pretty damn happy.

These things that occur to him, at times, in the late evening hours.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (3)

I'm not quite halfway through re-reading Cortázar's Rayuela and my copy is now in three pieces and threatening to disintegrate entirely. It was never much of a book qua book to begin with: cheap, browning paper, flimsy paperback cover, typography with two different style “l”'s used apparently at random. I have another copy in a box somewhere (I think), but it's a bit of a chore to get to. One of these days I'll have to try to hunt up a hardcover, not that easy a task since the standard editions of most books in the Spanish-speaking world usually seem to be paperback.

I've reached the point where Oliveira has walked out on La Maga, Maga's ailing infant son Rocamadour has died, and Maga herself has vanished to Uruguay or Italy or possibly to drown in the Seine. In Chapter 34 Oliveira returns to the apartment they formerly shared, and picks up a novel (said to be Lo prohibido by Pérez Galdós though it is not named by Cortázar) that Maga had been reading. Two texts make up the chapter, alternating line by line: a portion of the hackneyed Lo prohibido, and Oliveira's reflections — pretty condescending ones — on Maga's lowbrow reading habits. Eventually, Oliveira's thoughts wander to the meaning of his terminated relationship with Maga. In the following translation I have unravelled and discarded the Pérez Galdós thread:
I'm not going to explain to you what is known as Brownian motion, obviously I'm not going to explain it and all the same the two of us, Maga, we compose a figure, you a point in one location, me a point in another, moving around, you now maybe in the rue de la Huchette, me now discovering this novel in your empty room, tomorrow you at the Gare de Lyon (if you're going to Lucca, my love) and me on the rue du Chemin Vert, where I've discovered an extraordinary little wine, and little by little, Maga, we go on composing an absurd figure, with our movements we draw a figure identical to the one flies draw when they fly around a room, here and there, suddenly making a half turn, from there to here, that's what's called Brownian motion, now do you get it?. A right angle, a line that soars, from here to there, from back to front, going up, going down, spasmodically, braking suddenly and tearing off in the same instant in another direction, and all of this weaves a drawing, a figure, something non-existent like you and I, like two points lost in Paris going from here to there, from there to here, making their drawing, dancing for nobody, not even for themselves, an interminable figure without meaning.
Similar conceits are common in Cortázar's writing (see, for example, the story “Manuscript Found in a Pocket,” in which, in a kind of obsessive game, a man and a woman subject the possibility of seeing or not seeing each other again to the whims of their separate travels through the Metro). The idea that human relationships (and possibly human existence in general) are governed by a series of random encounters and disencounters was deeply engraved in both his philosophy and his fiction. Equally central was the recognition of the human desire to preserve something against the advent of oblivion; in the very next chapter (which is 87, if you're reading “the long way”) he quotes an Ellington song, then reflects:
Why, at certain moments, is it so necessary to say “I loved that”? I loved a blues, an image in the street, a poor dry river in the north. Give testimony, fight against the nothingness that will erase us. So, still lingering in the air of the soul, are those little things, a swallow that came from Lesbia, some blues that occupied in the memory a tiny space the size of perfumes, stamps, and paperweights.
In the "next" chapter (that is, means Chapter 105), this idea is continued, but in its inverse: here the subject the things that have not been preserved from oblivion:
I think of those objects, those boxes, those utensils that appear at times in warehouses, kitchens, or hiding places, and whose function nobody is now capable of explaining. The vanity of believing that we understand the works of time: time buries its dead and holds on to its keys. Only in dreams, in poetry, in a game — lighting a candle, carrying it down a corridor — do we approach at times that which we were before being that which who knows if we are.
I don't think it's a coincidence that these expressions of what for want of a better name might be called existential pessimism come in quick succession, nor that they come at this point in the book. The desertion of Maga by Oliveira and the death of Rocamadour together are the bleakest part of the novel. And just as in Cortázar's short story “El Perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”) where the death of a different child provokes in the jazz musician Johnny Carter a harrowing vision of a field of (presumably funerary) urns, the “Brown(e)” these pages bring to mind is not the discoverer of Brownian motion but the author of Hydriotaphia.

Update (6/05): I tracked down two annotated Spanish-language editions of Rayuela. The easier to locate (and more useful for most readers) is the paperback edition compiled by Andrés Amorós (Cátedra: Letras Hispánicas, Madrid 1992; ISBN: 84-376-0457-5), which contains a lengthy interpretive Introduction, extensive footnotes to the text of the novel (mostly identifying proper names or defining bits of argot), and — a nice touch — a fold-out map of Paris.

The other is the Edición Crítica prepared under the direction of Julio Ortega and Saúl Yurkievich, in the Colección Archivos series (ALLCA XXe, Nanterre, France, 1991; ISBN 84-00-07112-3). This is a doorstop-sized hardcover with several hundred pages of essays, the text of the Cuaderno de bitácora in which Cortázar planned out the book, and a complete history of the writing of the manuscript and its publication. Unfortunately, the only notes to the body of the novel itself are to textual variants. For scholars only, impressive as it is.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (2)

For the uninitiated, the above is the opening phrase of Chapter 73 of Gregory Rabassa's translation of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch), which I am slowly re-reading. Chapter 73 being the first chapter, or rather a first chapter, not counting epigraphs and the “Table of Instructions” in which it is explained that there are at least two ways to read the book: in the usual order from Chapter 1 to Chapter 56, or following the table, beginning with Chapter 73 then proceeding to Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 116, Chapter 3, etc., and concluding (or rather not concluding, as the final chapters cycle endlessly) with Chapter 131. The word Rabassa translates as “dull” is sordo, which is the same word that is used for our English “deaf,” but which can also mean silent, muffled, mute, etc. “Dull” seems a dull choice of word, but honestly I can't think of a better one. The Spanish is Sí, pero quién nos curará del fuego sordo... As to what the “dull fire” is all about, the only real insight one could gain would come through reading the book, which I urge you to do, if you are so inclined. Otherwise, no matter.

Cortázar loved jazz, dabbled in playing it (on the trumpet, and apparently not very well), and wrote some of his most interesting essays or quasi-essays about it (the best being “Louis enormísimo cronopio,” about Louis Armstrong). In Rayuela there is one long set-piece, broken up over several chapters, in which the various members of the Club of the Serpent, a diverse group of exiles and bohemians resident in Paris, spend an evening getting drunk on bad vodka and listening to old jazz 78s (and blues 78s as well, though Cortázar generally and with some justice lumps them together as “jazz”). In Chapter 17 this culminates in a bravura sentence, running more than two pages, in which the narrator poses what could be called a metaphysical defense of jazz, winding up with these words:
... an archetypal form, something from before, from below, that brings Mexicans together with Norwegians and Russians and Spaniards, that reincorporates them into the dark and forgotten central flame, clumsily and badly and precariously it returns them to a betrayed origin, it shows them that perhaps there have been other paths and that the one they took was maybe not the only one or the best one, or that perhaps there have been other paths and that the one they took was the best, but that perhaps there were other paths that would have been sweet to walk down and that they didn't take, or that they took only in a halfhearted sort of way, and that a man is always more than a man and always less than a man, more than a man because he has in himself all that jazz suggests and lies in wait for and even anticipates, and less than a man because out of this liberty he has made a moral or esthetic game, a chessboard where one must be either bishop or knight, a definition of liberty which is taught in school, in the very schools where the kids are never taught ragtime rhythm or the first notes of the blues, and so forth and so on.

(Rabassa's translation, somewhat modified)
The above could well be seen as a manifesto for the novel in which it occurs, perhaps even a manifesto for Cortázar's work and life as a whole.

Friday, April 08, 2005


When I was a kid there was a low-lying vacant lot across from our house, mucky and smelling of skunk cabbage in the spring, and if you turned over the right kind of stone (and one quickly learned to judge the right dimensions and placement, not too high and dry but not too deep in the muck) there was a good chance that, along with the assorted beetles and sow bugs and ants, you would encounter a delicate, motionless little form beneath, dark brown with a red stripe down the back, four tiny, fingered limbs. If you touched one it would wriggle away in a half-hearted fashion, its movements more sluggish still if the weather was cold.

These were the ordinary red-backs, the only kind I ever found in that lot. Closer to the lake, in the sphagnum woods, you could turn up the diminutive red efts, faintly spotted down the back, which I knew were the terrestrial phase of drab green newts that must have swum in the lake, not that I ever saw them. And once a friend found a heftier creature, a marbled salamander or a tiger, not far from the same woods.

I never see salamanders where I live now. It's a little too dry, too built up, too close to town. And nothing calls attention to itself less than a salamander. Silent, defenseless, innocuous, the salamander leaves little impression of itself. It's neither dangerous nor delicious, and has so little weight in our folklore and popular culture that its usual name, at least in America, is lifted pedantically from ancient Greek (though “newt,” as well as “eft,” are from an obscure Anglo-Saxon root). No one imitates the salamander, or fears it, in fact nobody except for herpetologists thinks about it much at all. There is some vague lore about its ability to survive in fire (allegedly because it was seen crawling from burning logs), there is one excellent short story (Julio Cortázar's) about an axolotl, which is, however, a rather more garish creature altogether, and that's about it. No Muppet, I'm almost certain, is modelled on a salamander.

These being hard times for amphibians in general, perhaps salamanders are fated to vanish. Interestingly, their distribution neatly reflects the ancient boundaries of Laurasia: they can be found in North America, Asia, and Europe, but not in Australia, Africa, or South America. A little more development, a little more ozone, and good-bye. Chances are they would be little missed. Unlike frogs and toads, I have never heard great claims for their efficacy in destroying mosquitoes or other pests, nor do they seem to be a food species of choice for any more conspicuous species. Their charms are subtle and solitary, qualities that are — sadly — little valued now.

But maybe their one defense will protect them still. In the deep woods, snug under their stones and rotten logs, they will wait. Natural Taoists, they will never seek to dominate, they will always be willing to sacrifice a little more, will ask nothing, and perhaps they will prevail in the end. They will miss us, I think, a little.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Notes on the jazz lyrics in Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch)

Update 2014: the discussion below is now very much out-of-date, but I'll leave it up in case it's of use to anyone.

Julio Cortázar was a great jazz fan. In one section of his novel Rayuela there is a long set-piece, broken up over several chapters, in which the members of the “Club del Serpiente” pass an evening listening to records, most or all of which are American jazz and blues records from the '20s and '30s. In the original Spanish-language text several of the songs are quoted, in English. When the English-language version of the novel, created by Gregory Rabassa, was published, most of these lyrics were changed substantially and, in most cases, without any self-evident reason. This was presumably done with the author's blessing, since he worked closely (if at a substantial geographical remove) with Rabassa on the preparation of the translation. But why? [Update 2013: see footnote1]

My first assumption was that Cortázar had mangled the lyrics when he wrote the book, either because he was working from memory or because he had difficulty making out the correct lyrics. Though Cortázar was a professional translator and knew English very well, he occasionally shows signs, when he quotes from the language, of being a little uncertain with vernacular expressions (his compositor or publisher may have been more uncertain still), and in a few instances (the lyrics aside) Rabassa clearly cleaned up English phrases that were not idiomatically likely (“This is a plastic's age” being one example). Since Rabassa was a jazz aficionado himself, he may have known or discovered that Cortázar had the lyrics wrong and corrected them, with the author's knowledge. (“It don't mean a thing if it ain't that swing” being one example of an obvious misremembering or printer's error.)

But some spot-checking of lyrics on the web suggests that frequently Cortázar's original versions are more accurate than the corrected ones. (Many of these tunes, by the way, can be heard at the online Red Hot Jazz Archive.) The only guess I can make — and it's a hesitant one, at best — is that the lyrics were intentionally altered in the Pantheon edition to avoid copyright clearance issues. Some examples follow.

Rayuela Chapter 13:

... Don't play me cheap.

Satchmo cantaba Don't play me cheap
Because I look so meek

Hopscotch Chapter 13:

... Don't play me cheap.

Satchmo was singing:

So what's the use
If you're gonna cut off my juice

Rayuela Chapter 15:

Champion Jack Dupree ...

Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey
Lordy, so long to gin,
Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey
Lordy, so long to gin,
I just want my reefers
I just want to feel high again —

Hopscotch Chapter 15:

Champion Jack Dupree ...

So long, whiskey, so long ver-mouth
Goodbye, goodbye, gin.
So long, whiskey, so long ver-mouth
Goodbye, goodbye, gin.
Jus' want some good grass
'Cause I wanna turn on again —

Rayuela Chapter 15:
Big Bill [Broonzy] ...

They said if you white, you all right
If you brown, stick aroun',
But as you black
Mm, mm, brother, get back, get back, get back.

Hopscotch Chapter 15:
Big Bill [Broonzy] ...

If you're an ofay, well, you're okay,
An' if you're tan, you're all right, man,
But if you're brown or black, mmn,
Step down, git back, git back.

Rayuela Chapter 16:

It don't mean a thing if it ain't that swing
[obvious error]

Hopscotch Chapter 16:

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

Rayuela Chapter 16:

You so beautiful but you gotta die some day,
You so beautiful but you gotta die some day,
All I want's a little lovin' before you pass away.

Hopscotch Chapter 16:

Skin like darkness, baby, you gonna die some day,
Skin like darkness, baby, you gonna die some day,
I jus' want some lovin' be-fore you go your way.

[This is an interesting case because after quoting the three lines in a block, Cortázar works them into the text of the following paragraph. So does Rabassa, but curiously he uses the original lyrics, not the substituted ones.]

Chapter 17:


I could sit right here and think a thousand miles away,
I could sit right here and think a thousand miles away,
Since I had the blues this bad, I can't remember the day —

Hopscotch Chapter 17:


I can set right here and think
three thousand miles away,
set right here and think
three thousand miles away,
can't remember the night
had the blues this bad any-way …

Rayuela Chapter 106:

The Yas Yas Girl [= Merline Johnson]:

Well it's blues in my house, from the roof to the ground,
And it's blues everywhere since muy [sic] good man left town.
Blues in my mail-box cause I cain't get no mail,
Says blues in my bread-box 'cause my bread got stale.
Blues in my meal-barrel and there's blues upon my shelf
And there's blues in my bed, 'cause I'm sleepin' by myself.

Hopscotch Chapter 106:

[no attribution]

Cold feet on the kitchen floor, cold feet on the ground,
cold feet everywhere since my man left town.
Cold feet in the butcher shop, cold feet in the store
since nobody comes around to grind my meat no more.
Cold feet on the motor and cold feet on the stones,
and cold feet in my bed, 'cause I'm sleeping all alone.

Rayuela Chapter 106:

Johnny Temple [“Between Midnight And Dawn”]:

Between midnight and dawn, baby we may ever have to part,
But there's one thing about it, baby, please remember I've always been your heart.

Hopscotch Chapter 106:

[no attribution]

Between now and tomorrow, babe, morning, we'll have to part
midnight to morning, babe, tomorrow we'll have to part
Please remember just one thing about it, I've always been in your heart.

Update (5/18/2005): More evidence that copyright issues may be the explanation: in Chapter 87 of Rayuela there is a nine-line quote from Ellington's “Baby when you ain't there,”

I get the blues down North
The blues down South
Blues anywhere,
I get the blues down East,
Blues down West,
Blues anywhere.
I get the blues very well
O my baby when you ain't there
ain't there ain't there —

In Rabassa's translation the lines are simply omitted, perhaps because the length of the quote put it beyond the limits of fair use without permission.

Incidentally, at least two compilations of most of the quoted tunes have been issued. One, issued by the Institute of Pataphysical Studies of Melbourne, Australia is El Jazz para leer Rayuela / The Jazz to read Hopscotch. The track listing is as follows:

Chapter 10
1) "I'm coming, Virginia" (Cook - Heywood) 3.10 m
Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra
New York 13/5/1927
2) "Jazz me blues" (Delaney) 3.02 m
Bix Biederbecke & His Gang
New York 5/10/1927

Chapter 11
1) "Four O'clock drag" (Gabler) 2.49 m
Lester Young with The Kansas City Six
New York 28/3/1944
2) "Save it pretty mama" 3.26 m
Lionel Hampton

Chapter 12
1) "Wrap your troubles in dreams" 2.43 m
Coleman Hawkins
New York 1/5/1944
2) "Grooving high" 2.42 m
Dizzy Gillispie
3) "Empty bed blues" 3.25 m
Bessie Smith
New York 20/3/1928

Chapter 13
1) "Don't play me cheap" (Dial - Randolph) 2.54 m
Louis Armstrong
Chicago 26/4/1933

Chapter 14
1) "After the rain" 4.07 m
John Coltrane
New York 29/4/1963
2) "Village blues" (Marsala) 2.48 m
Sidney Bechet
3) "See see rider" 2.55 m
Lonnie Johnson
Copenhagen 16/10/1963

Chapter 15
1) "Jelly beans blues" 3.20 m
Ma Rainey
New York 16/10/1924
2) "Blue interlude" 3.25 m
Benny Carter
3) "When I'm drunk" 8.30 m
Champion Jack Dupree
En vivo 1971
4) "Black brown and white" 3.06 m
Big Bill Broonzy
Paris 20/9/1951

Chapter 16
1) "Hot and bothered" 3.16 m
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
New York 1/10/1928
2) "I ain't got nobody" 5.40 m
Earl Hines
New York 7/3/1964

Chapter 17
1) "Mamie's blues" (Desdume) 2.46 m
Jelly Roll Morton
New York 16/12/1939
2) "Stack O'Lee blues" (Lopez) 2.20 m
Waring's Pennsylvanians

I was able to obtain the above from in Argentina. Some of the tracks are actually later performances that did not exist when Rayuela was written. The CD also includes a reading by Cortázar of Chapter 7 of the novel.

A second compilation, which may be obtainable in Europe, is called Jazzuela (Recopilación de Pilar Peyrats K Industria Kultural, Barcelona, 1979). These are the tracks:

I'm Coming Virginia
Jazz Me Blues
Four O'Clock Drag
Save It Pretty Mamma
Body and Soul
Baby Doll
Empty Bed Blues
Don't You Play Me Cheap
Yellow Dog Blues
Mahogany Hall Stomp
See See Rider
Blue Interlude
Junker's Blues
Get Back
Hot and Bothered
It Don't Mean A Thing
I Ain't Got Nobody
Mamie's Blues
Stack O'Lee Blues
Jelly Beans Blues

Neither compilation appears to have tried to include the songs quoted in Chapter 106.

There is, by the way, a different kind of “correction” in the English version of the same author's short story “El Perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”). In the original the jazz musician Johnny Carter (modelled on Charlie Parker) is, somewhat ridiculously, a marijuana fiend; in Paul Blackburn's translation he is, like Parker and more plausibly, a heroin addict.2 Again, it is likely that this was with Cortázar's blessing, since Blackburn was a good friend (and for a time the author's North American agent).

1. A 1965 letter from Cortázar to editor Sara Blackburn essentially answers the question. Cortázar agreed to rephrase the lyrics to avoid copyright hassles, since the laws regarding the use of even short snippets of lyrics were stricter in the US than in Argentina and France. The letter, which is dated November 20, 1965 and is entirely in English, can be found in Volume 3 of the 2012 expanded edition of Cortázar's Cartas. Sara Blackburn was, at the time, married to Paul Blackburn, Cortázar's agent, friend, and occasional translator.

2. Apparently this was due to an innocent mistake on Cortázar's part. Martín Caparros reports that Cortázar told him that at the time he wrote the story he knew nothing of the effects of the two drugs; when Blackburn pointed out the implausibility Cortázar elected to leave the original alone, although in the translation the choice of drug was changed. Caparros: "It is strange to imagine now a time when a Latin American in Paris, thirsty for modernity and for various underworlds, had not the faintest idea what marijuana was."

Further reading:

Rabassa, Gregory If This Be Treason: Translation & Its Discontents New Directions, 2005; (discusses his work translating Cortázar and other writers).

Cortázar, Julio Cartas (5 volumes), Alfaguara, 2012; (includes some of Cortázar's letters to Rabassa during the time the latter was working on the translation of Rayuela).

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (1)

As far as I can recall, it's been at least twenty years — maybe more like twenty-five — since I last read Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch). Since I've long regarded it as one of the foundations of my outlook on life, I'm starting to re-read it again, which I plan on doing slowly, taking breaks now and then when something else of interest is at hand. I read Spanish, but not with the facility that I do my own language, so I'm keeping Gregory Rabassa's estimable translation handy for the times when I need it. In general, when I start reading a book in Spanish the first few chapters are slow going; then once I get accustomed (or re-accustomed) to the author's way of writing and particular vocabulary I can pick up the pace and dispense with the re-reading I often have to do at first. Rayuela is not an easy book (though not, to be sure, as tough going as Lezama Lima's Paradiso, which was tough sledding even in translation — Rabassa's as well — though well worth it).

Reading the first few chapters I'm surprised both at how much I remember in some ways (sentences nearly verbatim, details of description, etc.) and how much I had forgotten (whole characters, in at least one case thus far). And of course, as with any dense, rich book, I'm coming across things that had never struck me before (or maybe they did, but I've just forgotten).

In one of the “expendable chapters” (#84) I found this little bit (via Rabassa):
Imagination has been praised to excess. The poor thing cannot move an inch away from the limits of its pseudopods. In this direction, great variety and vivacity. But in the other space, where the cosmic wind that Rilke felt pass over his head blows, Dame Imagination does not go. Ho detto.
There are several things worth noting here, in one short paragraph. The ho detto (Italian for “I have spoken”) may or may not allude to the “previous” chapter (which is chapter 3 if you're following the longer of the book's two alternative courses and reading the book hopscotch-style), in which Cortazár describes how in his childhood he had first come up against the unappealable Hispano-Italo-Argentine ¡Se lo digo yo! [...] Glielo dico io! — "I say so!” — with which his elders could settle any argument. The pseudopods are explained earlier in chapter 84: people begin like amoebas, but as they grow up their pseudopods harden (“what we call maturity”). But what really interests me here is the reference to the imagination. A few years after the book was published, during the political tumult of 1968 Paris, the words L'imagination au pouvoir! were found scrawled on a wall; it would become, for Cortázar, a key text, a motto, and in some ways it can serve as an epigraph/epitaph for his entire life. But Rayuela is plumbing the depths well below such easy slogans. It may be that Cortázar, who became more politicized as the Sixties and Seventies wore on (in part, it is said, because of the events of 1968), stepped back from the existential abyss across which the “cosmic wind” was whistling, but I doubt he would ever have disowned the paragraph above. The truest test of intellectual honesty is not the ability to see to the bottom of others' convictions, but the willingness to confront the limitations — perhaps even the vacuity — of one's own deepest-held beliefs. I don't think I've yet come to the bottom of the darkness of this very dark book.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The awaited

(A synopsis of a story, perhaps a screenplay)

The setting: Northern Europe; a small island community on the edge of the sea; sometime before 1700.

The two-dozen or so men and older boys of the community have set off in two boats on a fishing or sealing trip expected to last three or four days. They don't return.

Many of the women have never been out of the village; a few are from other islands or the mainland, but have never gone back. There are a few small currachs, but nothing sturdy enough for a sea voyage.

At first the women and young children hope for the return of the men. After a while — later for some than for others — they realize that this will never happen. They do not alter their routines much, but carry on, as they had been accustomed to doing when the men were away, living off stored food and gathered shellfish, plus milk from their livestock. They eat a little less.

After a hard winter that reduces their numbers by two or three the women begin to address the matter of food. They fish a little from the currachs in the surrounding waters, they work in their stony fields as they have always done but a little harder. There is not enough but they survive anyway. Very occasionally, during the good weather, a fishing boat puts into shore for a visit, but the women have little to trade and no one is willing to get on board with the fishermen and leave. Eventually, though, one of the younger wives does go off with a young fisherman. She is never spoken of again.

After a year or two has gone by, and the women have become thin and drawn, one of them refers in passing to a chore she must see to before her husband comes home. There is cold silence. A few weeks later someone else makes a similar remark, and this time heads are nodded. Before long the imminent arrival of the men becomes the sole topic of conversation. Hands are kept busy sweeping out and tidying the dwellings. There are increasing indications of madness.

The story ends with the prow of a boat breaking around the rocks and into view from shore. We don't see who is on board.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


There’s a new eatery in town, a kind of delicatessen / restaurant specializing in chicken, and we went in to check it out. While we were eating (I had crab cakes, as I rarely eat poultry), I happened to notice the fabric on the cushions of the bench across from me. Not surprisingly, this was decorated with images of chickens; what was more curious, though, was that there were also several lines of Italian verse, written in an antique hand, repeated through the pattern. The more I looked, the more familiar the words seemed. Now I don’t speak Italian, but I can read it to some extent, and the first line was clear enough:
Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento
Something like: mild and clear is the night and without wind. The remaining lines I had more trouble with, in part because of penmanship, but I could make out the words “luna” and “lontan.”

My first guess was that they night be from Dante. I’ve read the Inferno in English in its entirety, and much of it in Italian, and bits and pieces of the other two canticles in translation. The style seemed right, but not the present tense. Still, the first line seemed very familiar.

When I got home I Googled a few words and quickly found out why I recognized them. They weren’t by Dante, but by Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). I’ve never read him, but I did know this:

The night is warm and clear and without wind.
The stone-white moon waits above the rooftops
and above the nearby river. Every street is still
and the corner lights shine down only upon the hunched shapes of cars.
You are asleep. And sleep gathers in your room
and nothing at this moment bothers you. Jules,
an old wound has opened and I feel the pain of it again.
While you sleep I have gone outside to pay my late respects
to the sky that seems so gentle
and to the world that is not and that says to me:
“I do not give you any hope. Not even hope.”’
Down the street there is the voice of a drunk
singing an unrecognizable song and a car a few blocks off.
Things pass and leave no trace,
and tomorrow will come and the day after,
and whatever our ancestors knew time has taken away.
They are gone and their children are gone
and the great nations are gone.
And the armies are gone that sent clouds of dust and smoke
rolling across Europe. The world is still and we do not hear them.
Once when I was a boy, and the birthday I had waited for
was over, I lay on my bed, awake and miserable, and very late
that night the sound of someone’s voice singing down a side street,
dying little by little into the distance,
wounded me, as this does now.
That’s a poem by Mark Strand that I’ve always enjoyed, one line of which (“I do not give you any hope. Not even hope”) had, oddly enough, been in my mind just a day or so before I went into the restaurant. I always assumed the poem was an adaptation, but had never come across the original, which, I now know, runs as follows:
XIII - La sera del dì di fiesta

Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento,
E queta sovra i tetti e in mezzo agli orti
Posa la luna, e di lontan rivela
Serena ogni montagna. O donna mia,
Già tace ogni sentiero, e pei balconi
Rara traluce la notturna lampa:
Tu dormi, che t’accolse agevol sonno
Nelle tue chete stanze; e non ti morde
Cura nessuna; e già non sai nè pensi
Quanta piaga m’apristi in mezzo al petto.
Tu dormi: io questo ciel, che sì benigno
Appare in vista, a salutar m’affaccio,
E l’antica natura onnipossente,
Che mi fece all’affanno. A te la speme
Nego, mi disse, anche la speme; e d’altro
Non brillin gli occhi tuoi se non di pianto.
Questo dì fu solenne: or da’ trastulli
Prendi riposo; e forse ti rimembra
In sogno a quanti oggi piacesti, e quanti
Piacquero a te: non io, non già, ch’io speri,
Al pensier ti ricorro. Intanto io chieggo
Quanto a viver mi resti, e qui per terra
Mi getto, e grido, e fremo. Oh giorni orrendi
In così verde etate! Ahi, per la via
Odo non lunge il solitario canto
Dell’artigian, che riede a tarda notte,
Dopo i sollazzi, al suo povero ostello;
E fieramente mi si stringe il core,
A pensar come tutto al mondo passa,
E quasi orma non lascia. Ecco è fuggito
Il dì festivo, ed al festivo il giorno
Volgar succede, e se ne porta il tempo
Ogni umano accidente. Or dov’è il suono
Di que’ popoli antichi? or dov’è il grido
De’ nostri avi famosi, e il grande impero
Di quella Roma, e l’armi, e il fragorio
Che n’andò per la terra e l’oceano?
Tutto è pace e silenzio, e tutto posa
Il mondo, e più di lor non si ragiona.
Nella mia prima età, quando s’aspetta
Bramosamente il dì festivo, or poscia
Ch’egli era spento, io doloroso, in veglia,
Premea le piume; ed alla tarda notte
Un canto che s’udia per li sentieri
Lontanando morire a poco a poco,
Già similmente mi stringeva il core.
I haven't had time to make (or better, find) a full translation, though I've looked it over enough to see both differences and similarities between Strand's version and the original. Strange drift and mingling of circumstance, that reveals the source of a favorite poem through the upholstery of a chicken restaurant.

Postscript: The restaurant mentioned above has since closed. However, it fascinates me to know that someone has translated Strand's version back into Italian: La sera è calma e limpida e senza vento / La luna bianca come pietra aspetta sopra i tetti...