Sunday, December 29, 2013


Without really intending to, I seem to be following the course of the French novel in reverse chronological order, which, if you ignore the niceties of causation and the direction in which time is actually understood to flow, yields such discoveries as the recognition of Flaubert's Frédéric as the model for Balzac's Rastignac and the profound influence of the extended deathbed sequence in Roger Martin du Gard's la Mort du père (Book VI of The Thibaults) on the identically titled final section of le Père Goriot.

This is a curious book, one that could just as well have been entitled Rastignac, since it devotes at least as much attention to the ambitious young social climber from the provinces as it does to the pathologically doting father who divests himself of a considerable fortune, and thus dies penniless and unmourned, in order to satisfy the whims of his two shallow and disastrously married daughters. Among the other characters are Vautrin, Rastignac's voluble fellow boarder in the pension of Mme. Vauquer, who is improbably unmasked as a criminal mastermind, arrested, and then largely forgotten, the pathetic Victorine, who is smitten with Rastignac but simply disappears from the novel's pages as soon as she is poised to inherit a fortune, and Bianchon, the young medical student obviously modeled (again, disregarding chronology) on Martin du Gard's Antoine Thibault. Some of these eccentricities can no doubt be set down to the manner in which Balzac constructed the overall scheme of la Comédie humaine, in which many characters reappear in various of the component novels; but all of these difficulties are dispelled when one recognizes that the true protagonist of the novel is money, the pursuit of which and (especially) squandering of which is revealed as the true source of agency in human affairs.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

From the House of Bondage

Yale University's Beinecke Library has announced the acquisition and authentication of a 304-page manuscript said to be the earliest known prison memoir by an African-American. Entitled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison, the manuscript has been traced to one Austin Reed, who was born to a free black family in Rochester, New York around 1827, was assigned to the New York House of Refuge, a reformatory, at an early age, and served multiple terms in Auburn State Prison. He was apparently imprisoned at Auburn when the manuscript was written, sometime in the late 1850s, and he was still alive as late as 1895, when he wrote a letter to the warden of the House of Refuge seeking records of his confinement. Reed clearly had a keen, and longstanding, interest in documenting his own life; an unbound scrap of paper that accompanies the manuscript appears to instruct an unidentified person (Ms. Ives?) "this is the beg[inn]ing of the first chapter of my book — please [do] not lose it."

There are a number of well-known African-American slave narratives from the nineteenth century, including those of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Solomon Northup, but Reed was evidently never enslaved, though the conditions of his own civil captivity are said to have been appallingly brutal. His detailed account was preserved and passed down, in a manner not publicly described, until it was sold to Yale by the rare book dealer Between the Covers in 2009. Random House has acquired the rights to the manuscript, which, however, won't be available until 2016, presumably in order to give the editors time to a prepare a definitive text and supply additional material on Reed's life and confinement. Update: details on the edition are here.

For those disinclined to wait, the Beinecke Library has made images of the entire manuscript available online. I've dipped into it just enough to be able to predict that the final result should be eye-opening and fascinating, but I suspect I'll wait for the published version before I read it as a whole. This kind of discovery inevitably raises the question of how many other accounts of comparable interest may have been lost, or are still preserved tucked away in someone's attic or bookshelf; from a first look at this manuscript, however, the answer would seem to be "not many."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Les chansons d'Émile et Zachary dans l'univers

Hard on the heels of his 2012 CD Le fou, (which is currently up for a Grammy), the Louisiana singer and songwriter Zachary Richard has released this genial album, which has an unusual backstory. A few years ago, Richard's grandson Émile Cullin announced that he wanted to make a record. Carrying on a family's musical tradition isn't that uncommon, of course, but Cullin was all of ten years old at the time; moreover, he was born with some neurological deficits (in Cullin's words, he is "handicapé... un peu mais pas beaucoup"). Richard could easily have gently put Émile off about the matter, but instead he presented his petit-fils with a challenge: if he wanted to make a record, he had to come up with some songs. What did he love? Émile's answer, j'aime la vie, became the genesis of the album's first track:

Eight of the ten compositions here are Cullin-Richard collaborations; Émile provided the ideas and most of the words; Richard (along with his musical collaborators) polished them into songs. The lyrics (and the liner notes) are in French, but they aren't hard to follow for anyone who has even a soupçon of that tongue. (Richard is bilingual and has also made records in English, but he has been a passionate advocate of the preservation of French in Louisiana.)

It should be made clear that J'aime la vie is not what typically gets called "a children's record," though it certainly will be enjoyed by children; it's musically very much a Zachary Richard record, and is of a piece with his other work, in particular with Le fou. The lyrics are light but thoughtful and inventive, and sometimes wise and profound:
Et pourtant, ce n'est pas très clair
Mais je me sens beaucoup moins solitaire
Sachant que te es dans l'univers.
As of this writing, autographed copies of J'aime la vie are available through Richard's official website.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Your Shoulders Hold Up the World

A time comes when you no longer can say: my God.
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when you no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don’t cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.

Women knock at your door in vain, you won’t open.
You remain alone, the light turned off,
and your enormous eyes shine in the dark.
It is obvious you no longer know how to suffer.
And you want nothing from your friends.

Who cares if old age comes, what is old age?
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it’s lighter than a child’s hand.
Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and nobody will ever be free.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn’t help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.

Poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade; translation by Mark Strand.

The version above, which I prefer to the revised one included in Strand's Looking for Poetry, is from Souvenir of the Ancient World, published in 1976 by Antaeus Editions in an edition of 500 copies. The typography is by Samuel N. Antupit. I've cropped the page a bit.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Life Underground

When I was a kid I lived in a neighborhood that overlooked a lake, and when we had nothing to do my friends and I would sometimes go down the hill to its far end, where there was nothing much but woods, and hunt for newts or tadpoles in the little stagnant pond that collected in the shadows just across the road. Trout-lilies and wild leeks grew around its edges, and there were trails that led off to places known and unknown.

Just up the road a group of older boys had excavated trenches twenty yards or so back in the woods, covered them with old doors and cast-off plywood, then concealed them under branches, dirt, and leaves, forming a network of winding subterranean passages we were strictly forbidden by our parents to play in, for fear that a cave-in might bury us alive. Naturally we disobeyed a little, and crawled darkly through, inhaling the smell of cool, raw earth. There wasn't much in the tunnels — a stray armored beetle that had fallen in was about all — and I don't remember ever seeing the older boys using them, but they exerted a fascination nonetheless, as if they stood ready for some unspecified but promising future use. It was the height of the Cold War, and people were going underground, digging fallout shelters, tunneling under the Berlin Wall, looking for places to hide. The trenches must have filled in long ago.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Step It Up and Go

Lowry Hamner and Jon Sholle playing a Blind Boy Fuller tune; Mt. Kisco, NY, November 2013. Video by Frank Matheis from Step it up and go!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Of Love and Bears

She had no idea what animals were about. They were creatures. They were not human. She supposed that their functions were defined by the size, shape and complications of their brains. She supposed that they led dim, flickering inarticulate psychic lives as well.
Could a great novel — or even two — arise from a premise as improbable as an interspecies relationship between a human being and a bear? Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home, which is about a bear who, by some fluke of vocal anatomy, not only speaks but plays a mean alto sax, has long been a favorite of mine, and now here, not new but new to me, is this brief, exquisite 1976 novel by the Canadian writer Marion Engel, who died in 1985 at the age of 51. Engel's novel centers on Lou, an archivist who is dispatched to spend a few months cataloging the library of a 19th-century eccentric who constructed and inhabited an octagonal folly on a remote island in northern Ontario. Dropped off on the island, she learns, to her surprise, that one of her responsibilities during her sojourn will be to tend to its only other inhabitant, a quite inarticulate tame bear who formerly belonged to the family that descended from the original founder. As spring turns into summer the bear becomes Lou's constant companion, and in time one thing leads to another ...

The Bear looked out at New York City rocking past the taxi window. A stone jail with humans bunched at the major intersections. Ten million dazed and mortal beings hypnotized by love, work, hate, family and the past. What were the odds — the Bear asked himself, trying to be realistic — in all that multiplicity, on gaining sufficient purchase on real freedom? Looking out at this sampling of the millions is just the thing to convince me that I have no meaning and no chance. What could it possibly matter if one more or less creature toots on a horn?
Rafi Zabor's novel is told from the point of view of the Bear, as he is called throughout. It's a far more ambitious, sprawling book, in which romance (with human women, largely, though the Bear will occasionally dally with ordinary ursines) is a relatively minor element, secondary to the art and metaphysics of jazz and the mysteries of being. (If you're curious about the mechanics of bear-human copulation, though, Zabor's your man.) One of the amusing things about The Bear Comes Home is that the human characters, at least the musicians who are hip, by and large don't much care that the Bear is a bear, and there are some very droll set-pieces of him sitting in with other jazz musicians. It is, thus far, Zabor's only novel, discounting his unsatisfying 2005 autobiographical narrative I, Wabenzi.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro

Congratulations to Alice Munro, the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. The limited-edition chapbook shown here, which contains a single long story, was issued as a promotional item to coincide with her 1994 collection Open Secrets.

Here are the story's last four paragraphs, which, in keeping with the tale's daring oddness, describe more or less the chronological beginning of events.

The hotel moved her to one of the rooms for permanent guests, on the third floor. She could see the snow-covered hills over the rooftops. The town of Carstairs was in a river valley. It had three or four thousand people and a long main street that ran downhill, over the river, and up again. There was a piano and organ factory.

The houses were built for lifetimes and the yards were wide and the streets were lined with mature elm and maple trees. She had never been here when the leaves were on the trees. It must make a great difference. So much that lay open now would be concealed.

She was glad of a fresh start, her spirits were hushed and grateful. She had made fresh starts before and things had not turned out as she had hoped, but she believed in the swift decision, the unforeseen intervention, the uniqueness of her fate.

The town was full of the smell of horses. As evening came on, big blinkered horses with feathered hooves pulled the sleighs across the bridge, past the hotel, beyond the streetlights, down the dark side roads. Somewhere out in the country they would lose the sound of each other’s bells.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Drinks with Paddy

In spite of the title and its subject — the British traveler, wartime SOE operative, and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor — this little volume is thus far available only in Spanish, but hopefully an English-language version will be forthcoming soon.* The author, Dolores Payás, has translated several of Leigh Fermor's books into Spanish, and Drink Time! (En compañía de Patrick Leigh Fermor) is her affectionate memoir of her visits to his home in Greece, where he made his home for decades until his death in 2011. Paddy — that was what everybody called him, except some of the Greeks, for whom he retained the nom de guerre of Mihalis — was ninety-six when he died, but even at that advanced age he retained much of the eternal youthful optimism he possessed when he set out, as a teenager in 1935, to walk across Europe from the coast of Holland to Constantinople.

Fermor completed that journey, and would make two fine books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, out of his adventures along the way, but he never quite got around to narrating the last leg of the journey. (The parts he did write, found among his papers, are being published, this year in the UK and next year in the US, as The Broken Road.) Why didn't he finish the task? Old age, perhaps, or perfectionism, or too many distractions — Payás suggests that if Paddy and his wife had chosen to settle in Crete, where he spent much of World War II, rather than in the Mani Peninsula, the partying Cretans would have kept him from writing anything at all. Because Fermor was no solitary; a prodigious autodidact, polyglot, and lover of books, he also cherished companionship, conversation, good food, and plenty of wine — the local Greek stuff by preference, no need for fancy French vintages — and to the end, even as his eyesight and hearing failed him, he served as an eager host to a steady stream of old friends and new-found acquaintances in his book-crammed, disorderly, but welcoming house above the sea. Dolores Payás, when she visited, knew that every day, invariably, a knock would come at the door where she was working, and Leigh Fermor would cheerfully summon her time for drinks and conversation. It was an invitation few would have wanted to refuse.

*One has been issued by Bene Factum Publishing.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Klíma's Century

The Czech writer Ivan Klíma, now in his early eighties, has survived the German occupation of his native land, during which he and his family — of Jewish descent, though entirely non-observant — were interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, as well as four decades of communist rule, and he has outlived such compatriots and friends as Josef Škvorecký, Václav Havel, Jiří Gruša, and Pavel Kohout. Though barely established as a novelist of international stature before he turned forty, he came into his own in the 1970s and '80s, at a time when it was impossible for him to publish in Czechoslovakia. A member of the Czech Communist Party from his teens (two communist uncles were executed by the Nazis), he became gradually disenchanted in the years leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968, during which he was active as a writer, journalist, and editor, and he was eventually expelled from the party. Though he evidently never signed the dissident manifesto known as Charter 77 — he is somewhat reticent about the reasons, which seem to have included both personal and philosophical factors — he was closely allied with the leaders behind the document, helped organize the publication and distribution of samizdat, and was an active participant in the breathtaking sequence of events that brought about the end of Czech communist rule in 1989. Since then he has largely kept to the political sidelines, content to concentrate on his writing.

Much of the territory in My Crazy Century, the English-language translation of a two-volume memoir published in Prague several years ago, will be familiar to readers of his fictional work, especially My First Loves, My Golden Trades, A Summer Affair, and his masterpiece, Judge on Trial. Klíma is said to have written at least twenty works of fiction, many of which are not available in English and which I have not read, but he seems to be a writer who needs to hew closely to his own personal experience; in fact in this memoir he mentions deliberately choosing menial employment, at a time when it was politically impossible for him to earn his living as a writer, in order to be able to write knowledgeably about that kind of work. He also makes it clear that his own marital infidelities have often been reflected in his fiction. He has not, to my knowledge, previously described the cultural and political movements in which he participated in as much detail as he does here.

Klíma's narrative ends in 1989 and the last hundred or so pages are made up of a group of brief essays — "expendable chapters" we might call them, following Cortázar, who may in fact have been his model — on various themes: "Ideological Murders," "The Party," "Dogmatists and Fanatics." These rather solemn and general pieces add little to the book, and suggest that although Klíma as moral novelist (and memoirist) has a keen sense of the ambiguities experienced by ordinary, essentially decent people who are unfortunate enough to live through extraordinarily dark chapters of history, he is not a particularly original moral or political philosopher. No matter, though; the stories are enough.

Update: A profile of Klíma in the New York Times (November 18, 2013) implies that the English-language version is an abridgement of the original. If so it's not clear what may have been taken out.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Notes for a Commonplace Book (12)

The preferred reading matter of the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, as described in Luis Harss & Barbara Dohmann's Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers (1967):
He was always particularly fond of Russian literature — Andreyev, Korolenko — and, above all, a great admirer of Scandinavia literature: Selma Lagerlöf, Bjørnson, Knut Hamsun, Sillanpää. "Once upon a time I had a theory that literature had been born in Scandinavia, then gone down to Central Europe and spread from there." He is still an assiduous reader of Halldor Laxness, whom he considers a great renewer of European literature, from a position diametrically opposed, say, to that of French intellectualism. United States literature, he thinks, has also has a salutary influence in latter years. But Rulfo, with his love of the diaphanous, favors the Nordics, because of their "misty atmosphere."
Rulfo's own books are set entirely in rural Mexico, but literature is not a respecter of borders.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

War (Joe Sacco)

My impression is that, with some salutary exceptions, contemporary graphic novelists tend either to focus on personal traumas or strike out into the realm of the fantastic — or both. There's nothing in principle wrong with either approach, but the situation does leave certain territories unexplored, serious journalism being one of them. Of course, on the face of it, there might seem to be a fundamental incompatibility between the art of making "comic books" and the kind of sober and objective reporting one expects from a reporter, but the Maltese-American journalist-cartoonist Joe Sacco has made as good a case as anyone for disproving that supposed incompatibility.

Safe Area Goražde, originally published in 2000*, covers the Bosnian war of the 1990s, one of the nastier phases of the troubled breakup of what was once the multiethnic state of Yugoslavia. It focuses on a small pocket of territory, largely inhabited by Bosnian Muslims, that had been officially and ineffectually designated by the UN as a safe haven. While what happened in Goražde may not have attained the level of atrocity of the massacres at Srebrenica (another safe area, not far away), it was bad enough. Sacco doesn't appear to have been on the scene during the worst period, but he was there in 1995 when the city was still besieged and had ample opportunity to interview eyewitnesses with fresh memories. Except for a few pages of historical background, it is those eyewitness accounts, along with Sacco's self-deprecatory description of his efforts to document them, that make up the book.

A little later this Fall W. W. Norton will be publishing The Great War, Sacco's wordless 24-panel folding panorama of the Battle of the Somme, which is being issued in a slipcase along with a pamphlet that contains Sacco's introduction and notes to the project as well as a brief essay by Adam Hochschild. (I've received an advance copy.) Hochschild's contribution (which is adapted from his book To End All Wars: A Study of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918) ends with a visit to the cemetery that holds the remains of the members of the British Devonshire Regiment who were killed in the battle:
In the cemetery's visitors' book, on a few pages the ink of the names and remarks has been smeared by raindrops — or was it tears? "Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk." "Sleep on, boys." "Lest we forget." "Thanks, lads." "Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace."

Only one visitor strikes a different note: "Never again."
* There is a more recent "Special Edition" of Safe Area Goražde, with additional material, which I have not seen.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

On the memory of stones (Benedict Kiely)

— In Devon, he assures her, lived a man who experimented in dousing and other devilment. He found by means of his dousing pendulum that some seashore stones he tested responded to the vibration tests for anger. He concluded that once upon a time those stones had been used for war and murder.
— Crap a brick, as my father used to say. What rot is that?

Though the two novels were published within a few years of each other and both deal (at least in part) with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Bernard MacLaverty's Cal (see last post) and Benedict Kiely's Nothing Happens in Carmincross could hardly be more different in tone and manner, the former taut and efficient and the latter rambling and verbose — but not necessarily less entertaining for all that. Kiely's novel follows the travels of an Irish academic who has come home from America in order to attend a wedding just across the border in the North. For most of the novel what actually "happens" is next to nothing, mostly drinking, rambling around, talking, a bit of screwing, but the book has the pleasures of listening to a long-winded but gifted storyteller with a seemingly inexhaustible store of events, memories, legends, and lies at his disposal. Scraps of song, newspaper clippings, and references to Irish history and mythology are woven into almost every paragraph, and much of it is bound to fly over the head of the average reader (like me). Yet despite its generally flippant tone, the book never strays far from the theme of violence.

The sanguinary Irish ballad "Follow Me Up to Carlow" is quoted in the book's first pages, and Planxty's rousing version (below) is possibly the one Kiely had in mind. In keeping with the spirit of the novel it should be listened to appreciatively but with a healthy dose of irony as well. The singer is Christy Moore.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The cottage (Bernard MacLaverty)

Cal heated a tin of beans and tasted himself slice after slice of bread at the fire. He fell asleep and when he awoke it was dark. He rubbed the window and looked out. Between the cottage and the lights of the farmhouse he could see the blizzard. It was after eight o'clock and the fire had died down. Shivering, he raked the embers to redness and put on some kindling wood, then blocks on top of that. He pulled his chair nearer to the fire and put his feet up against the tiles of the mantelpiece. After such a long sleep he knew he would spend the night tortured with guilt and insomnia. There was a knock at the door and he leapt to answer it, knowing who it was.

Bernard MacLaverty's Cal is now thirty years old, and it has probably been at least twenty-five years since the last time I read it. I picked it up again earlier this week, prompted by the death of Seamus Heaney, who like MacLaverty was a native of what depending on your point of view is either Northern Ireland or Ulster. Set during the height of the Troubles, the novel follows one not very willing participant, a teenaged boy with no particular prospects who is pretty much trapped from the outset, though his story will take some unexpected turns along the way. Dark as the background is, and as grim as the unfolding of the events, there's nevertheless a gentleness about the book, as MacLaverty is more interested in his characters than he is in indulging in yet another rehearsal of the cycles of violence and retribution that finally seem to have burned out, at least for now, in that much bled-over corner of the world.

Put another way, the book is not an example of noir. Which isn't to say that it holds out much hope, but it does at least have enough compassion for its characters to make us care about their fates, even if their prospects for happiness were never more than remote.

Bernard MacLaverty has written many short stories, some of which I've read and which are very good indeed, and several other novels, which I've never quite caught up with. This one still holds up quite well.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

From "The Strand at Lough Beg"

Jacket photo by Virginia Schendler, from Selected Poems 1966-1987

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cortázar: Of piantados and idos

Julio Cortázar's essay, "Del gesto que consiste en ponerse el dedo índice en la sien y moverlo como quien atornilla y destornilla," the title of which translates as something like "On the Gesture that Consists of Placing One's Index Finger to One's Forehead and Moving It Like Someone Screwing and Unscrewing," appears in the second volume of his collection La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos. Being a bit culture- and language-specific, the piece hasn't (as far as I can tell) been translated into English, and isn't included in the North Point Press volume (translated by Thomas Christensen) entitled Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, which gathers other pieces from La vuelta al día as well as from another Cortázar miscellany, Último Round.

The essay is dedicated to a consideration — in fact, a celebration — of a variety of eccentric characters, including such key figures in the Cortázar universe as the French postman Ferdinand Cheval, a folk architect who constructed a homemade edifice using the stones that he gathered on his daily rounds; Ceferino Piriz, the utopian whose bizarre schemes were incorporated into the pages of Hopscotch; and the pseudonymous poet El Santo, who versified Argentine history in an epic composed of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of unbearably pedestrian lines.

One section of the essay, entitled "Los piantados y los idos," discusses some of the terminology that Argentines employ to describe people who are what we would in English might call "eccentric," or "crazy," or just plain "nuts." What follows is a brief excerpt; rather than try to find English equivalents for some things, I have left them in the original. (This translation could no doubt be improved, so corrections are welcome.)
The word piantado is one of the cultural contributions of the Río de la Plata; readers north of the 32nd parallel will note that it derives from piantare, "to scram" in Italian, a usage illustrated by the sonorous tango where one can also hear the sound of broken chains: Pianté de la noria... ¡se fue mi mujer!*

Note that someone who goes [va] is ido [gone], a word that in proper Spanish means chiflado [crazy]; in giving more importance to and imposing the piantado in detriment to the ido, we Argentines reiterate one of our most cherished aspirations, which, as everyone knows, is to replace a Spanish word with an Italian one whenever possible and above all when it isn't. I, for example, was an ido when I was very small, but around the age of twelve someone referred to me as a piantado and my family adopted the neologism in accordance with the aforementioned sound principle. Naturally the interior of the country is less exposed to these terminological substitutions, and it is fair to say that if the capital can boast of a commendable percentage of piantados, our provinces on the other hand remain full of idos; the linguistic quarrel has no importance in the face of the hope that the total of idos and piantados may someday manage to overcome the influence of the cuerdos [sane people, squares], of whom we've had it up the you know where...

I always take piantados very seriously because they represent the heteroclite among the normal patterns, the earth of the salt, the humus of the future that is incorporated mysteriously into that crystalline substance composed of sodium chloride, usually of a white color and characteristic acrid taste, which is very useful for soups and stews but which has something about it of the sterile, the boring, the Valley of Death.
* "Hear the sound of broken chains" alludes to a line from the first stanza of the national anthem of Argentina: Oíd el ruido de rotas cadenas. The quotation from the tango "Victoria" ("Victory") means, roughly, "I have escaped my yoke... My woman has gone!"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Living the disaster

Takashi Sasaki is a retired professor specializing in Spanish philosophy, with a number of translations into Japanese of the works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset to his credit. For a number of years, he has been blogging in Japanese under the nom de plume of Fuji Teivō (derived from the Spanish fugitivo, "fugitive"), and his posts have been collected in a series self-published books under the title Monodialogues (the word is borrowed from Unamuno). On March 11, 2011, he was at home where he lives in the city of Minamisōma in the prefecture of Fukushima, when the region was struck in quick succession by a severe earthquake, a massive tsunami, and the consequent nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Fukushima: Living the Disaster, which thus far has been issued in Japanese, Spnaish, and a few other languages but not apparently in English, reprints the blog posts he wrote in the aftermath of those events. The handsomely produced edition shown above, the only one in a language I can read, was issued by the Spanish publishing company Satori Ediciones, which specializes in books about Japan.

The book begins with a post on March 10, the eve of the earthquake, and then, except for the text of a brief note hand-written on the 12th, breaks off until the 17th, when Sasaki was able to resolve some computer issues and resume blogging. By then, a great deal had transpired, but one of the curious things about this book is that Sasaki has relatively little to say about the tsunami, which devastated large parts of Minamisōma and claimed many lives there, and this may be due in part to the fact that he apparently lives a few miles inland from the coast. The book isn't really about the chain of events that made up the disaster, but about living through the aftermath, which of course was itself a kind of ongoing catastrophe (and still is) because of contamination from the damaged power plant. Rather than an eyewitness chronicle (though it is that to some extent as well), it is a moral examination centered around two questions: how the nation that had suffered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to jeopardize the safety of its people by promoting nuclear power in one of the most seismically active regions on Earth, and how one chooses to act in the face of catastrophe.

Sasaki, though he makes no pretense of being an expert on nuclear energy, has some understandably scathing things to say about the actions of various Japanese politicians, scientists, and corporations both before and after the crisis. But as a student of philosophy, he also rigorously examines his own actions, and that examination is made more pertinent by his own particular circumstances.

At the time of the disaster, Sasaki, who is in his seventies, was living with his wife, who suffers from advanced dementia, his elderly mother, his son, and his granddaughter. Though the area where he lived was designated by the Japanese government as an exclusion zone (one of several, with varying degrees of restriction) after the nuclear accident, he elected to stay put and continue to care for his wife in their home, arguing that leaving would be both cowardly and irresponsible (he alleges, and I have no reason to doubt it, that a number of elderly citizens died from the trauma of being evacuated). Though the remainder of the family eventually relocated, he and Yoshiko stayed, and much of the book amounts to a chronicle of their efforts — and the town's efforts — to regain something approaching normal life. He is quite blunt about the frustration, and often fury, he feels in the face of what he sees as the duplicity and lack of humanity of various elected officials, bureaucrats, and corporate employees who stand in the way of that objective. When the book ends, in July 2011, he and Yoshiko are still at home, he continues blogging, and Minamisōma is slowly making a recovery, even as its future is shadowed by radioactive contamination and the still unstable state of the damaged nuclear reactors.

A final side-note: there is much wringing of hands at present about the future of the publishing business, and of the printed book. Fukushima: vivir el desastre is printed on good paper in a sturdy paperback format with French flaps and a nice cover painting by the artist Eva Vázquez. From what I've seen of the company's catalog, they seem to be producing a steady stream of high-quality, carefully focused books — and this in despite a Spanish economy that has itself been little short of disastrous. Granted, in Spain, as in a number of other European countries, books tend to be held in greater esteem than in the US, but perhaps more of our domestic publishers should take note of the example.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mary Jane (The Vulgar Boatmen)

This song began its life on the Vulgar Boatmen's 1989 debut album You and Your Sister, where it was performed as a full-tilt rocker and sung by Robert Ray. I like that version, but the heartbreaking, minimalist one above, from the band's compilation album Wide Awake, is the one that gets under my skin. Here it's sung by Dale Lawrence, and accompanied starkly by guitar, organ, and Kathy Kolata on viola. Ray and Lawrence are the songwriters.

Wide Awake was issued in 2003 by No Nostalgia Records, the Boatmen's own label, which sadly no longer seems to exist, and the CD also seems to be unavailable,* but downloads are available in the usual places. This band deserves better than the obscurity that largely seems to be its fate.

* As is the above video, as of 2017.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


He sought out inconspicuous things that could be only be found by those who already knew that they might be there. He learned that in early spring, if you looked carefully, where the back roads wound through woods, the little flowers of hepatica, unfolding from delicate stems, might be discovered rising a few tentative inches above the remains of last year's fallen leaves, barely visible even to those who passed that way on foot. In the weeks to come they would be joined by anemone and bloodroot, Dutchman's-breeches and trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit and columbine and dog's-tooth violet, all of them hidden away on shadowy slopes or at the edges of swamps and streams. There was an old cart path, long disused, that ran for a mile or so through the deepest woods, past great outcroppings of rock, and if you were lucky and knew where to look you might come across lady's-slippers, sturdy yellow or pink orchids, sprouting up in tiny colonies here and there, just a few, concealed by boulders and brush until you were almost upon them. Where the brush had been cleared and the canopy opened to let in the full strength of the sun, the colonies disappeared, and it was said that the plants were impossible to cultivate, no matter how hard you tried.

If you crouched down at the base of beech trees, whose giant, smooth trunks, unless they were very well concealed, were invariably scarred with the initials of putative or intended couples, you could often find Indian-pipes, pale, waxy saprophytes that had no chlorophyll of their own and seemed relics of a radically different world. Unassertive and opaque, they did no harm and offered nothing. On the trees and the forest floor there were mushrooms in all sizes and shapes. He knew none of their names nor which would be infallibly fatal if eaten, and so he left them all alone.

On some afternoons, when he climbed to an elevated clearing surrounded by decaying paper birches, he knelt down on the moss that covered the weathered stone and found the red-capped stalks of the lichen they called British soldiers.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Death of a Translator

Dora Knowlton Ranous's English version of Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale doesn't have much to recommend it (other than the magnificent daguerrotype on the cover of this New Directions reprint), but it did make me curious to learn more about its background, since it was the edition through which, years ago, I first encountered Flaubert. The New Directions edition credits it, obscurely, and, as it turns out, inaccurately, as the "Brentano translation, edited by Dora Knowles [sic] Ranous," and in fact the Brentano's bookstore in New York did issue the same text in 1922, but by then Ranous had already been dead for six years (more on that below). The version she "edited" apparently originated in the first decade of the 20th century, and the extent to which she was responsible for the actual work of translation is unclear. According to Rossiter Johnson's Dora Knowlton Ranous, Author — Editor — Translator: A Simple Record of a Noble Life,
In 1903 she was engaged to assist Robert Arnot, a learned Oxonian, in editing sets of books for the subscription business of M. Walter Dunne. They thus prepared the works of Benjamin Disraeli in twenty volumes, those of Guy de Maupassant in fifteen volumes, and those of Gustave Flaubert in ten volumes. By far the larger number of translators, while understanding the foreign language sufficiently, are defective as to any mastery of idiomatic and graceful English; and a great part of the work performed by Mrs. Ranous consisted in correcting existing translations so as to supply that quality and increase the readableness of the books. Besides this, she read all the proofs and was expert in managing the "make-up."
Johnson* (who was a collaborator with Ranous on other projects) also tells us that "in 1909-10 Mrs. Ranous was with the Pearson Publishing Company and edited sets of Flaubert and Maupassant, which carry her name on the titlepage." The Brentano's text may have been based on either the Dunne edition or the one created for Pearson (if indeed they were not identical). Whether it was Ranous or another hand who, in effect, vandalized Flaubert's text by removing dozens of brilliant descriptive passages, is unclear; publishers in that era were not as scrupulous about respecting the integrity of an author's work as we would, perhaps naively, like to think that they are now.

Be that as it may, Ranous (above), who was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts in 1859**, appears to have been an extraordinary woman in many respects, and Johnson's brief memoir, published in 1916 in a limited edition by the Publishers Printing Company, is a moving tribute. After working for many years as a writer, editor, and translator (and following an earlier career on the stage***), Ranous, by now a widow, suffered a stroke in December 1914, and another the following year. Her health and — perhaps most crucially — her sight declined, and in January 1916 she gassed herself, leaving behind a despondent note in which she referred to the "blackest misery" that was overcoming her. In addition to Johnson's memoir, details can be found in The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer for February 1, 1916, and the Meriden Morning Record for January 20, 1916.

* An active opponent of women's suffrage, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Why Women Do Not Want the Ballot.

** Her grandfather Dr. Charles Knowlton, a noted freethinker, was an early advocate of birth control. Rossiter Johnson dryly notes that the doctor's daring Fruits of Philosophy "subjected him to intemperate criticism from many strictly conventional thinkers."

*** Dora Knowlton Ranous's youthful adventures in Augustin Daly's theatre company were recounted, decades later, in an anonymously published memoir, Diary of a Daly Débutante. A subsequent tour with a traveling company brought her to Cincinnati, where she mounted a live elephant in an adaptation of Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.

Sunday, August 04, 2013


Every autumn the fire department put on a turkey shoot as a fund raiser. No turkeys were involved — or rather there were turkeys but they were already firmly dead, frozen solid, and stowed in the back of the rescue truck. Instead, the men paid a dollar, lined up, and took turns firing shotguns at a beer coaster attached to the end of a wooden arm. As soon as a shot was fired, the arm would be swiveled away behind a protective barrier, and a man hidden from sight would set a fresh target into place. The coasters were marked with numbers, and once all of the shooters had taken a turn the results were tallied; the contestant who had pierced his target with the greatest number of pellet holes was awarded a turkey, and another round began. There was beer in abundance, cola and hot dogs for the kids. The women, who didn't shoot, stood off to one side.

The boy had never fired a gun before, and could barely wield the heavy shotgun, even though it was the lightest gauge. The kick from the exploding shell left his shoulder sore for days. He competed three times, and never nicked the target.

Many of the men in the neighborhood were hunters, and some belonged to hunting camps upstate where plumbing wasn't part of the package. One winter a man shot a bear, brought it home, and slung it over a tree branch that overhung the road in front of his house. The schoolchildren walking down the hill to the bus stop in the morning gazed up at the icicle of frozen blood that descended from the animal's snout. Someone must have said something to the man because the bear had disappeared by the time the kids came home.

Two houses up the road lived another man and his family, three or four little kids including twins. He had poor vision and an out-of-state driver's license, and he belonged to a patriotic group that sometimes left leaflets on parked cars. It was said that he owned a mortar and had once demonstrated its use to some of the neighbors by firing a can of peas into a nearby pasture full of cows. Once some boys playing in the woods behind his house found a wooden crate with stenciled markings; it seemed to contain some kind of canisters or shells. The boys left it alone, and kept their discovery to themselves. The man dug a fallout shelter deep beneath his lawn and stocked it with provisions in case the Russians attacked. One morning the state police came, seized a quantity of firearms and materiel, and led the man away in handcuffs. A year or so later the family moved away.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Memorial Day

The children were darting in all directions, in blue Cub Scout uniforms with yellow neckerchiefs if they had them or play clothes if they didn't, giggling and hollering and playing tag in the clearing beneath the high pines, ducking behind the enormous trunks, tracing circles around the hulking clapboard frame of the community house. They had marched in the parade, following the band, and had kept as still and silent as they were capable of doing while a bugler played "Taps" and the white-gloved firemen stood crisply at attention. The brocaded flags, borne on poles by the color guard in white helmets, hung laxly, barely stirring in the diffident afternoon breeze. When the riflemen shouldered their arms and aimed into the distance, the children had plugged their ears, then gasped as each salvo of blanks echoed around their heads. The cloud of smoke soon thinned but the smell of gunpowder, acrid but alluring, continued to filter through the crowd.

Later, when the coolers were hoisted out and set down on a patch of lawn, they lined up two by two for sodas, grape or root beer or orange, fishing them out of the melting ice and waiting while the grown-ups plunged can openers through the tinplate tops. Through the triangular holes they sipped the sweet cold liquid that tasted of wounded metal and gingerly waved off the yellow jackets that hovered around their hands. Finally they lined up again for paper cups of vanilla ice cream, which they scooped out, quickly before it could melt, with little wooden spoons. Then they ran off again to play until it was time to go home.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why have they killed Jaurès?

Today is the 99th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès, the French socialist leader and parliamentarian who had struggled, valiantly but vainly, to keep his country from plunging into the infernal stupidity of what would become known as "the Great War." Dining in a Paris restaurant, Jaurès was shot by a French nationalist who was later acquitted of the murder. A fictionalized version of the event is included in Roger Martin du Gard's Les Thibault.

This version of Jacques Brel's "Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?" was recorded by Erik Marchand.

Ils étaient usés à quinze ans
Ils finissaient en débutant
Les douze mois s'appelaient décembre
Quelle vie ont eu nos grand-parents
Entre l'absinthe et les grand-messes
Ils étaient vieux avant que d´être
Quinze heures par jour le corps en laisse
Laissent au visage un teint de cendres
Oui notre Monsieur, oui notre bon Maître

Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?
Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?

On ne peut pas dire qu'ils furent esclaves
De là à dire qu'ils ont vécu
Lorsque l'on part aussi vaincu
C´est dur de sortir de l'enclave
Et pourtant l'espoir fleurissait
Dans les rêves qui montaient aux cieux
Des quelques ceux qui refusaient
De ramper jusqu'à la vieillesse
Oui notre bon Maître, oui notre Monsieur

Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?
Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?

Si par malheur ils survivaient
C'était pour partir à la guerre
C'était pour finir à la guerre
Aux ordres de quelque sabreur
Qui exigeait du bout des lèvres
Qu'ils aillent ouvrir au champ d'horreur
Leurs vingt ans qui n'avaient pu naître
Et ils mouraient à pleine peur
Tout miséreux oui notre bon Maître
Couverts de prèles oui notre Monsieur
Demandez-vous belle jeunesse
Le temps de l'ombre d'un souvenir
Le temps de souffle d'un soupir

Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?
Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Streets of the Spectacle

It's February 1848, and Frédéric Moreau, the idle young hero of Flaubert's Sentimental Education, paces up and down the sidewalk, nervously awaiting a rendez-vous with another man's wife. The two have been engaged in a passionate but unconsummated love affair, and Frederick has at last persuaded her to stroll arm-in-arm with him, in public view, along the streets of Paris. (What Madame Arnoux doesn't know is that he is secretly scheming to whisk her up into a room he has previously rented just for that purpose.) But, inexplicably, his date hasn't shown, and Frederick is left cooling his heels. Here's how Flaubert describes him:
He considered the cracks in the paving-stones, the mouths of the gutters, the candelabras, the numbers above the doors. The most trivial objects became his companions, or rather ironic spectators, and the regular façades of the houses seemed pitiless to him. He felt himself dissolve from despondency. The reverberation of his footsteps shook his brain.

When his watch read four o'clock, he felt a wave of something like vertigo, like horror. He tried to repeat some lines of poetry, to perform some mental calculation, to concoct a story. Impossible! The image of Madame Arnoux obsessed him. He wanted to run to her. But which route would he take to avoid passing her?
What gives this rather silly scene an extra pungency is what is happening all around it, because an uprising is in the process of breaking out, the early stages of which Frédéric has personally witnessed, and the reign of Louis-Philippe is about to come to a sudden, violent end. Only after some time has passed does it dawn on him that it might be the fighting in the streets that has prevented her from appearing — in fact this is not the case, as she has been detained because her son is ill — and eventually he gives up and consoles himself, even as the battle rages, by chasing after another woman, whom he succeeds in leading up to the same rented room he had prepared for Madame Arnoux. The next morning he leaves her, goes out, and is on hand during some of the fighting, which fascinates him even as he remains emotionally detached from it:
The wounded who fell, the corpses stretched out, didn't seem like real wounded, like real corpses. It seemed to him like being present at a spectacle.
At one point Frederick will tread on something soft and realize that it's the hand of a dead man, but even this has no real effect on him.

The whole episode, and the entire novel, are heavily tinged with irony, a self-mocking irony given that the character of Frédéric is regarded as being modeled on the author, who, like Frédéric, supported the 1848 revolution but was largely indifferent to politics. Inevitably, it recalls the writings of the Situationist Guy Debord, who declared (as translated by Ken Knabb):
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving. (The Society of the Spectacle)
It's likely no coincidence that the events that Flaubert chose to describe coincided with the earliest years of photography. Far more so than a painting, a photograph is an image that acquires a life independent of its creator. Photography is an art form, to be sure, and is eminently susceptible to being manipulated, but a photographic image eludes the control of the photographer in a way that a painted one, whose every brushstroke has been consciously placed, can not. The image at the top of this post, captured by Daguerre himself in 1838, bears details and resonances that the photographer himself may or may not have noticed; most importantly, it doesn't matter if he noticed them. Frédéric, the epitome of the Paris flâneur, is strolling through a spectacular world, that is, a world made up of just such images, not necessarily photographs themselves (though they are a part of it) but a whole universe of things that appear not to have been consciously created, by God or by man, but rather to simply exist on their own.

The Daguerrotype shown, which is said to be the earliest datable photographic representation of the human form (a bootblack and his customer at lower left), depicts the Boulevard du Temple. Flaubert later lived on the same street.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Three portraits

Three more Real Photo postcards, possibly from western Pennsylvania. The one above has the following inscription on the reverse of the card:
Mother Moser [or possibly "Moses"]
Mother's Sister
Mariah Knotts
& Son & his child
This conceivably could be the Mariah Knotts who was born in 1836 and died in Franklin, Pennsylvania in 1915. The Cyko cardstock on which the image is printed was manufactured from 1904 into the 1920s. The other two cards, which bear no inscriptions, are on Azo stock that is roughly contemporary.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Scenes of Rural Life

The images on this page reproduce part of a group of Real Photo postcards that may have originated in western Pennsylvania. The one above is probably the oldest; it's printed on postcard stock, in this case sold by an unknown manufacturer, that became obsolete around 1907, when postal regulations were updated to permit including a message, in addition to the mailing address, on the reverse of the card. The wall behind the adolescent boy has been decorated with a variety of posters and advertisements, though it's difficult to read the lettering because of the angle and the exposure. Even so, the central image of the boy and his horse is nicely composed.

The remainder are later, printed on Azo postcard stock manufactured from 1918-1930, and may be the work of a single photographer, one who developed his own images but hadn't quite mastered the printing process. In the first, an oval frame was employed, but only on the right side. Note the rungs on the tree to enable climbing. The name "Harold Bixler" is written on the back.

The image below, of a woman holding a cat, is even more askew (these scans are aligned with the axes of the cardstock, not of the print).

In the composite below, I have juxtaposed the two cards to show how the ragged edge and the dark background on the left side apparently align. If I'm correct, the two prints must have been made at the same time.

The awkwardly exposed image below may also belong with the previous two; if rotated 90° to the left, it also is a possible candidate for aligning with the top of the print of the woman with the cat.

The dark backgrounds framing these three prints appear to be previously exposed film. I don't really understand the developing technique involved here, but it's clear the photographer was improvising, probably with minimal training and rudimentary equipment. That would make sense given the general poverty and isolation of the scenes, but it says something that he or she was driven, even under less than optimal conditions, to preserve a little bit of the surrounding world.

None of these postcards were ever addressed or mailed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Hopscotch at Fifty

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Editorial Sudamericana, and next year will be the centenary of the author's birth. Blog Morellianas has a useful round-up of some related articles and announcements in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. Among the more interesting are an exhibit at the Instituto Cervantes in Paris devoted to Rayuela: El París de Cortázar and a nice appreciation by Ted Gioia (link dead).

Much of this activity is inevitably highly "meta," as they say these days, since the author himself has been dead for nearly thirty years. Supreme cronopio that he was, he would probably have found all of it more than a bit tiresome and wandered off to play with the nearest cat or spin some Louis Armstrong records. But hopefully it will draw the attention of new readers and bring old readers back to the books themselves, which are aging nicely, thank you.

I'll leave the last word to Cortázar, from a letter to Jean Barnabé dated June 3rd, 1963, just as Hopscotch was going to press:
Personally, I think I've written nothing better than "The Pursuer" [his novella loosely based on Charlie Parker]; nevertheless, in Hopscotch I have broken any number of dikes, of doors, I have smashed myself to pieces in so many and such various ways, that as far as I'm concerned it wouldn't matter to me if I died right now. I know that in a few months I'll think that I still have other books to write, but today, when I'm still within the atmosphere of Hopscotch, I feel that I've gone to my own limits, and that I would be incapable of going further.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dark beginnings

It's a bit disconcerting, perhaps, to reflect that the oldest story in this collection is now more than sixty-five years old. Gabriel García Márquez is still with us, of course, though he seems to have outlived his muse, but these early stories, almost of which were written before more than a handful of readers had even heard of him, now seem to belong to a distant era. Even so, many of them still hold up quite well for all that.

The volume gathers "all the stories" Gabo had published as of 1975 (the latest story is in fact dated three years earlier), organized into the three earlier collections — Ojos de perro azul; Los funerales de la Mamá Grande; and La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Erendira y de su abuela desalmada — in which they first appeared. They can be roughly divided into three distinct but not necessarily mutually exclusive modes. Two are fairly easy to categorize: the neorealism of "La mujer que llegaba a las seis" and "En este pueblo no hay ladrones"; and well-wrought fantastic tales like "Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes," "El ahogado más hermoso del mundo," and "El último viaje de la buque fantasma." The third (but chronologically earliest) group is made up of what we might call existential horror tales, and here we find most of the contents of Ojos de perro azul.

There are deservedly popular gems among both the neorealist and fantastic tales, but it is the author's first — and by most measures least accomplished — pieces that interest me for the moment. And what a difficult and strange bunch of stories they are! Most are concerned with ghosts, or corpses, or disembodied spirits of some kind; in the least challenging (perhaps "Nabo, el negro que hizo esperar a los ángeles") the reader is eventually able to piece together something resembling a narrative thread, but at their most extreme (the frankly baffling "Amargura para tres sonámbulos") we're pretty much left scratching our heads. Note that this is not a criticism. Note also that the stories, though written over the course of a least a half-dozen years, weirdly illuminate each other; thus certain cryptic references in "Diálogo del espejo," which describes a man shaving before work and discovering that the face he sees in the mirror has begun to diverge from his own, acquires new possibilities when read alongside "La otra costilla de la muerte," in which one of a pair of twins has died and the survivor waits while a barber shaves the face of his brother's corpse in the next room. Motifs of consciousness beyond the grave, of transmigration, not always fully developed, weave in and out of these tales, though it isn't clear whether their affinities are the result of strategy, improvisation, or simply the reworking of material that wasn't fully mined the first time through.

One of the strangest, and most abstract, of the tales is the brief "La noche de los alcaravanes," in which three men who have been blinded by curlews* stumble about within a space that is neither explained nor truly described; the setting could be from one of Beckett's theatre pieces, except that Beckett would never have conceived of anything so garish. According to Gerald Martin's biography of García Márquez, the tale alludes to a folk belief about curlews blinding children, but no such origin can account for the oddness of the tale. Longer, but no less perplexing, is "Eva está dentro de su gato" ("Eve Is Inside Her Cat"), in which a woman who is tormented by her own beauty (which she compares, in a lush extended metaphor that runs to a full page, to a population of insects coursing through her veins) suddenly leaves her body, floats in a dimensionless world, finds herself drawn back by a craving for the taste of oranges, and then attempts (apparently unsuccessfully) to enter the body of a cat. There is no backstory, no explanation; instead there are mysterious allusions to a buried "niño" — a boy or child, but the word is placed in quotation marks in the original — and to "three unmovable enemies" (the sonámbulos of the other story?) and the reader has little to hold onto, though the story's final sentence provides a devastating, if not clarifying, conclusion.

To some extent, these perplexing stories can, perhaps, be characterized as apprentice work, though by a singularly gifted hand. García Márquez would go on to write more classically polished tales, as well as audience-pleasing novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude. But these earliest pieces, as clunky and difficult to interpret as they often are, also display the possibilities of a more radical approach to narrative.

*"Curlews" is the word used in Gregory Rabassa's translation of the story, though the Spanish alcaraván may correctly refer to a "stone-curlew" or bittern.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Black Lake

The waitress spread a cocktail napkin on the glass tabletop with a practiced flourish, then swiftly clanked a gin and tonic down on it before the wind could lift it by a corner and carry it away. He thanked her with a nod and watched her move off among the other tables, taking orders for refills, pulling a check tucked into a dark faux-leather case out of her apron pocket and setting it down. Blondish hair done up in a tidy knot, sturdy, she looked to be in her thirties. She was pleasant and professional but a hair shy of friendly and he guessed that she had a husband and a small kid or two and knew how to deal with situations. It was only when she moved off to go inside the restaurant and gave instructions to a busboy who stood expressionless just outside the door that he saw the smile disappear from her lips. The busboy, younger, darker, and slightly built, an immigrant he guessed, snapped into action, seized a plastic bin, and efficiently cleared the table that had just been vacated, then mopped off the crumbs and condensation with a white cloth.

The cast-iron legs of the table rested unevenly on the flagstones and rocked as he reached for his drink. The outside of the glass was already slick with condensation. He peeled away the cocktail napkin and took his first sip, gazing out through his sunglasses at the choppy water beyond the terrace, at the uniform green of the surrounding high hills. Lofty clouds lay here and there above him, darker in the distance, and he suspected there might be rain by evening, but for now the sun still bore down, interrupted only now and then by a fugitive shadow. The conversations at the tables around him blurred into white noise, the meaningless chatter of birdsong. An older couple sat directly behind him but they rarely spoke; further off there was a group of six women, middle-aged, dressed-up, lively, talking two and three at a time, and it was some time before he noticed that they were speaking — what was it? German? Swedish? He couldn’t be sure, and wasn’t curious.

Far out on the lake, a small boat, steered by two barely distinguishable figures in orange life-jackets, was struggling with the fickle crosswinds, tacking left and then right, its multi-colored sail billowing, bending over the water but always righting itself again. A crow passed high above, closely pursued by a smaller bird, whose nest the crow had no doubt attempted to raid. He watched them cross as far as the opposite shore, the crow in smooth glides, the smaller bird in quick aggressive darts, until they disappeared behind the trees.

On the near shore, just below him, stretched a little crescent of beach, clearly artificial, no more than fifty feet across. A small child was digging in the sand with a pink plastic shovel, trying to build a tiny castle, but the sand was all wrong, too coarse and impure, and it wouldn’t cohere. The child’s father was reading the newspaper in a beach chair a few yards away, and now and then peeked over the pages to glance at the child and at the little waves that exhausted themselves on the sand.

“May I join you?” said a woman’s voice. She didn’t wait for a reply, and none came. He turned away from the lake to face her, set down his glass, and, with an expression that conveyed neither surprise nor pleasure, regarded her as if she were a giant bird who had just completed folding her wings behind her as she settled into her chair.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Echoes of war

Coincidence or fate put an advance copy of Jean Echenoz's fine, slender novel about French soldiers in the Great War into my hands just as I was reading the last few pages of Les Thibault, Roger Martin du Gard's anything but slender roman fleuve, the latter sections of which span the war years. (Spoilers ahead, so be advised.)

As it turns out, the books have some curious similarities. Some of these, like the scenes narrating the mobilization of the French army at the outset of the war and the loss of one limb by a major character in the course of it, might be plausibly dismissed as inevitable given the nature of the subject. On the other hand, the fact that both novels are primarily concerned with two men, and that in the course of each narrative one of those two men will die in the crash of the two-seater aircraft in which he is a passenger (and leave behind a pregnant girlfriend) may be a coincidence or may be a sly hommage on Echenoz's part, a hommage that would not be out of character given that the opening pages of 1914 feature a pointed allusion to Victor Hugo's novel of the 1793 Vendée uprising, entitled Ninety-Three. (The French title of Echenoz's novel, by the way, is not 1914 but a simple 14, and it also begins in the Vendée.)

Be that as it may, the novels have little in common in tone, with Martin du Gard's being (for the most part) earnest and analytical, and the newer book more graphic in its depiction of warfare but also leavened with a bit of playful postmodernism. As a case in point, we only find out about halfway through 1914 that its two chief characters, two men named Anthime and Charles who have been strangely circling around each other for several chapters, seemingly both attracted and repelled by some connection whose nature is unclear, are in fact brothers, as are, of course, Jacques and Antoine Thibault in Martin du Gard's novel.

Jean Echenoz's 1914 will be published by the New Press early next year, and will doubtless be one of many new books released in conjunction with the centenary of the beginning of the war.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Rereading Martin du Gard (IX): Night raid

It is springtime in Paris, 1918. The youngest of the Thibaults, Jacques, has been dead since the beginning of the war; his older brother, Antoine, a medical officer in the French army, has inhaled mustard gas while conducting an inspection tour aimed, ironically, at determining why so many members of the medical corps have been gassed. He survives, but with aftereffects that sap his energy, leave him short of breath, and make it difficult for him to speak. He has been recuperating — if that is the accurate word — in a hospital in southern France, but has obtained leave for a few days to return to Paris in order to attend the funeral of an old family retainer. While in the city, he consults with a senior colleague, Dr. Philip. As the two doctors go over the details of Antoine's case, he reads in his old mentor's eyes what at bottom he has already known but refused to admit to himself: that the course of his "recovery" is in fact a downward spiral of remission and relapse that must, inexorably, lead to his death within a matter of months.

For Antoine, who has taken great pride — that stubborn Thibault pride, the family crest — in his own skill and drive, in his scientific knowledge, in the bright future that lay ahead of him, this death sentence produces a paroxysm of horror. Naturally he has known all along — and he is not a religious man — that his life would one day end, but he has always been confident that his death would come only after a long life filled with accomplishments and laurels; there would be a sense of satisfaction, a legacy to leave behind. Abruptly, confronted with his own annihilation, he realizes that it will all come to nought.

The chapter that narrates Antoine's return home that evening is one of the briefest and most extraordinary in the book. Reeling, he first takes the boulevard Malesherbes to the rue Boissy-d'Anglas, "passing so close to the façades that his elbows at times struck the walls."
He found himself under the trees of the Champs-Élysées. Before him, through the trunks, barely illuminated but visible under the nocturnal light of that beautiful spring night, stretched the Place de la Concorde, crisscrossed by silent automobiles which appeared like beasts with phosphorescent eyes and then vanished into the darkness. He saw a bench and approached it. Before sitting down, out of habit, he told himself "Don't catch cold." (And at once he thought, "What does it matter, now?") The blinding verdict that he had read in Philip's face had taken posssession of his spirit, and not only his spirit but his body, like an enormous parasite, a devouring tumor that would crowd out everything else in order to bloom monstrously and occupy his entire being.
The lyricism at just this point in the narrative, this nocturnal urban sublime in the face of the abyss, is remarkable, but it is about to become more so. He hears a distant howling noise in the night. At first he is barely aware of it; then:
Two shadows, two female forms, emerged at a run from beneath the trees, and, almost at the same time, all the warning sirens began to scream at once. The sparse points of lights that blinked feebly around the Place de la Concorde were instantly extinguished.
It is a night raid by German bombers, and the city is quickly blacked out. He hears distant detonations, the sounds of anti-aircraft guns, and rises from his bench.
Above Paris, an astonishing sky came to life. Emanating from every part of the horizon, luminous beams swept the vault of the night, their milky trails moving off and intersecting, scrutinizing the jumble of stars like a face, brutal, swift, or at times hesitating, stopping suddenly to examine a suspect spot, then recommencing their gliding investigation.
He looks for a taxi,
But the square was now deserted, dark, immense and could only be discerned at moments. Its outline would suddenly appear, rising out of the gloom in the intermittent reflection of the searchlights, with its balustrades, its pale statues, its Obelisk, its fountains, and the funereal columns of its tall lampposts, like a vision in a dream, a city petrified by some enchantment, the vestige of a vanished civilization, a dead city, long buried in the sands.
As the detonations and the sounds of machine gun fire rage on, he skirts the Tuileries and approaches the Pont Royal, watching halos of red flame rise all over the city.
He had forgotten his misery. Beneath that invisible, imprecise menace that hovered like the blind wrath of a god, an artificial excitation spurred his blood; a kind of furious inebriation gave him strength. He quickened his steps, reached the bridge, crossed the river, and plunged into the rue du Bac.
A few moments later he is standing outside the building where he lives, resigned to his fate but dreading the solitude of rooms where he knows that no one awaits him.

These few pages are the last chapter of third-person narration in The Thibaults; the more than one hundred pages that follow are composed of letters and of entries in Antoine's journal, which he continues to the day of his death. It's almost as if Martin du Gard, who generally took a more scientific, matter-of-fact approach to narration, decided to pull out all the stops for a set-piece that would combine existential horror, the nightmare of modern warfare, and the beauty — and unexpected, evocative solitude — of the monuments of Paris into one final dazzling flourish.

[Image above: Yvon, Pont Royal and Quai des Tuileries. The translations are mine rather than Stuart Gilbert's, but in any case they pale beside the original.]