Friday, October 24, 2014

Last words

No quiero ser un espectro más de esta casa...

When she died earlier this year, the Spanish writer Ana María Matute left behind an unfinished novel, Demonios familiares ("Family Demons," or conceivably "Familiar Demons"), which has just been published in Spain by Ediciones Destino. Though she was 88 at her death and had suffered from various ailments, it's quite clear from reading it, and from the brief "Nota final" by María Paz Ortuño, that she died with her wits and her gifts soundly intact.

Like much of Matute's work, Demonios familiares is set during the Spanish Civil War and centers on an adolescent girl, in this case one who would have been just a few years older than the author, who was born in 1925. As the story begins, Eva has just been retrieved from a convent school where she has been living with the intent of becoming a novice. The convent has been set ablaze by persons unknown and the fire is visible from her childhood home, where her father, a retired colonel who is confined to a wheelchair, lives accompanied only by a taciturn male servant, Yago, and an elderly cook and housekeeper, Magdalena.

Eva has grown up, motherless and almost friendless, in a household presided over by the colonel's mother, known to everyone as Madre. Madre is now dead but her presence lingers everywhere, especially in Eva's attic refuge, where her portrait is now stored. Restored to her home, and abandoning any thought of becoming a nun, Eva is now fiercely determined to gain her independence, but with the outbreak of full-scale war her world will be turned upside-down by the discovery of an injured parachutist — one of "the enemy" — in a nearby forest. The text ends abruptly, perhaps half-written.

There are familiar elements in this scenario: the old house inhabited by memories and retainers, the remote and despotic paterfamilias (though he is beginning to soften his grip), the love affair that cuts across battle lines, but their presence should not mislead us. Matute's inhabitating of Eva's thoughts and emotions, and her ability to resuscitate in Eva the spirits of her own childhood, keeps Demonios familiares fresh and original throughout.

There are two attitudes customarily taken when a writer leaves unfinished work behind; the first — and this applies particularly if the writer was elderly at her death — is that the work, being unfinished, is of interest more to scholars than to readers; the second is that it's a terrible shame that the work was never finished. Neither attitude is really appropriate in this case; no doubt the concluding chapters of the book would have provided additional pleasures, but there's something satisfying about it in its unfinished, indeterminate state. It's as if Matute's long career as a writer did not end but simply opened out into generous possibility.

The jacket art, by the way, is by the Canadian painter Michael Thompson. The book's epigraph is by the poet Luis Cernuda: "Todo lo que es hermoso tiene su instante, y pasa": everything that is beautiful has its moment, and passes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A poet looks back

Back in the late 1970s I read this translation by the late Gabriel Berns of what is actually only the first volume (comprising Books One and Two) of La arboleda perdida, the memoirs of the Spanish poet and artist Rafael Alberti, but I've only just now finished reading it in the original for the first time. The translation, published by the University of California Press in 1976, is now out-of-print, which is a bit of a shame although it doesn't really surprise me, Alberti long ago having been displaced in general literary circles as the one peninsular Spanish poet whom one is obligated to know by his contemporary and friend — how close a friend is a bit of a matter of dispute — Federico García Lorca.

In fairness, Lorca, in addition to having died the death of an unwilling martyr during the Spanish Civil War, was the better poet, but not by such a margin that Alberti's achievements should have been forgotten. It's true that Alberti wrote too much and that inevitably some of it is of uneven quality, but the best of what he wrote — the poetry collections Sobre los ángeles and Retornos de lo vivo lejano, as well as the present volume — still holds up rather well. For those interested there are a number of selections of his poetry in English, including volumes translated by Ben Belitt (badly), by Mark Strand (nicely), and by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno.

As for The Lost Grove, it covers the first decades of Alberti's life, beginning with his birth in Andalusia in 1902 and ending in 1931, that is, well before the Spanish Civil War, the outcome of which led to his long exile in South America and Italy during the Franco years. An ardent supporter of the republican side, Alberti would also become, and remain until his death, a committed communist, but that aspect of his life is in this volume largely held in abeyance; the focus here is on his childhood in Andalusia and his search for a vocation first as a painter and later, definitely, as an artist. By the end of his twenties he had gained a solid reputation, published a half-dozen volumes, and become acquainted with such prominent literary and artistic figures as Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, and at least three future Nobel laureates in Literature: Pablo Neruda, Vicente Aleixandre, and Juan Ramón Jímenez. He had also met the woman — the writer María Teresa León — who would remain his wife and creative partner for the rest of her life.

Much of Alberti's most interesting work was prompted by crisis and loss, whether it took the shape of bitter romantic disappointment, war, or exile. (As he tells us here, even his shift from art to poetry was prompted by an illness that kept him away from his easel.) The writing of this initial volume, which seems to have been done at widely-separated intervals over a long period, is shadowed but also enriched by his separation from his homeland, in particular his beloved Andalusian seacoast. Memoirs are inevitably self-serving, and at times Alberti appears to write with the freedom of assuming that he would never see many of his old friends and relations again. As it would happen, he outlived virtually all of them, as well as — by decades — the Franco regime, and survived to the age of ninety-six.

Gabriel Berns's translation is capable and reads smoothly. It clarifies (or footnotes) a number of allusions that would be likely to confuse the English-language reader, and in one case, perhaps due to the censorship of the original text (my copy of which is a Seix Barral reprint from the 1970s), it provides a fuller account than the Spanish version, specifically of a comical anecdote involving a purported relic in the possession of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos. One section of several pages has been left untranslated; it describes a notorious lecture ("performance" would be a better word) that Alberti gave to a women's literary society, leading to a minor scandal. The account of the incident, while perhaps not completely untranslatable, would undoubtedly remain somewhat opaque in English, and its omission is perhaps understandable.

In the coming months I hope to move on to the untranslated second volume of La arboleda perdida, which covers the period from 1931 to 1987.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Celebrating Andy Irvine

Andy Irvine has just released a live CD of his 70th-birthday bash two years ago, with a DVD promised soon, both of which are available directly from Andy's website. Participants include members of several of the various combos Andy's been associated with, including Sweeney's Men, Planxty, Mozaik, and LAPD (which stands for Liam O'Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin, and Dónal Lunny), as well as Paul Brady, George Galiatsos, and Manolis Galiatsos. Most of the twelve songs have been recorded previously on other records, but the versions are strong, the sound excellent, and everyone's in great spirits. I recommend it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Things that fit in the hand.
Things that follow us, but only from a safe distance.
Things that are closer than they appear in the rear-view mirror.
Things that have no reflection when they are held up to a looking-glass.
Things that have not yet been described by science.
Things that are best left unspoken.
Things that have no names.
Things whose names have been forgotten.
Things people call you if they can't remember your name.
Things that are not bilaterally symmetrical.

Things that spin on an axis for a brief moment or two, then topple over and stop moving.
Things of potential utility during rainstorms.
Things that fell into a crack in the floorboards, and when they were at last retrieved, no one knew any longer to whom they belonged.
Things found floating in the water.
Things washed up on the shore.
Things found in the belly of a hippopotamus, in surprisingly good condition.
Things that make people blush, at first, or maybe always.
Things that left-handed people find it particularly difficult to use.
Things that can be shaken to make percussion instruments, at least until they break.
Things in my pockets.

Things that fell through a hole in my pockets, rolled into the street, and disappeared down a storm drain.
Things Mama don't allow.
Things that all came out in the wash.
Things the dog chewed.
Things you originally bought for yourself but decided to give as a present instead.
Things that can be folded repeatedly without tearing.
Things you never learned.
Things whose nature can not yet be publicly revealed, but which probably weren't worth the trouble in the first place.
Things supposedly nicknamed "George" by those who were there at the time.
Things nobody ought to ask you if they don't want to know.

Things that got moldy and had to be thrown out.
Things you shouldn't stick in your ears.
Things that only grow under beech trees, in the deepest part of the woods.
Things marked "unknown artist, c. 1930."
Things that aren't remembered.
Things that can't be placed.
Things that are different.
Things that aren't the same.
Things you don't have to declare when you cross the border.
Things that once released, can never be put back in the bottle.

Things you can't buy on Sundays in parts of Pennsylvania.
Things marked with several small perforations, perhaps from a BB gun.
Things someone stuffed in a brown paper bag and shoved in the back of a desk drawer, and that's the end of it.
Things lemons are good for.
Things that most likely got left behind when the neighbors moved out.
Things nobody knows.
Real things.
Things that never were.
Things that are gone.
Things that remain.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Loss of faith

This 1913 novel by Roger Martin du Gard may come across today as a somewhat curious project, a book that is not only a "novel of ideas" in the sense of being about ideas or structured around ideas but which in fact is largely composed of discussions of those ideas. The period is the late 1890s and early 1900s, a time of open conflict in France between the forces of traditional authority, both clerical and secular, and a vigorous positivism bolstered by scientific advances and by the undermining of religious faith by scholarly criticism. The book consists in large part of responses to that conflict, particularly as viewed through the life of the title character, who inherits both the scientific outlook of his physician father and the pious Catholicism of his mother. In the course of his own intellectual development, the young Jean comes to question and eventually to wholeheartedly reject Catholic teachings; his militant public atheism provokes a breach with his wife, Cécile, with whom he separates brutally shortly after the birth of their daughter. Barois becomes the editor of a prominent freethinking journal, Le Semeur, and is caught up in the Dreyfus Affair, during which he vigorously denounces the decisions of the military courts; later, as his health declines, he is overcome with existential horror at the thought of death and finally relapses into Catholicism. His daughter, whom he does not see again until she turns eighteen, becomes a nun, in part, it is suggested, to ransom her father's soul.

Martin du Gard was not religious, but for the most part he is too scrupulous both as a scholar and as a novelist to openly take sides. A broad range of views are put forward, each of them plausibly articulated, from the uncompromising materialism of Barois's middle years to his daughter's unshakable piety in the face of objections posed by science and reason ("Mais, père, si ma certitude était à la merci des objections ce ne serait plus une certitude..."). Ironies and subtleties abound. Barois, devastated by illness and personal estrangements, reverts to Catholicism; a steadfast friend and collaborator, Marc-Élie Luce, dies serenely an atheist, surrounded by his large and loving family. The priest who guides Barois in his return to faith, secretly troubled in his own convictions, is a longtime admiring reader of Le Semeur who, at the end of the novel, stands by as Cécile burns a document, penned years earlier, in which Barois, foreseeing the possibility of a deathbed conversion, had explicitly denounced it in advance. As the pages burn, the priest thinks of the Church, which had eased Barois's last days, and to which, he concludes uneasily, this sacrifice is due "— peut-être."

Jean Barois looks back at the Dreyfus era, but also prophetically ahead to the debacles of twentieth-century Europe. Before his final return to faith, Barois, like his allies, looks confidently forward to an age in which scientific progress would solve not only medical and technical problems but social ones as well. Martin du Gard foresaw that even as the disappointment of those expectations would lead some, like Barois, to reach for the familiar emotional comforts of faith, it would lead others — notably two young Catholic nationalists who debate with Barois near the end of the book — to an irrational politics that arguably prefigures Fascism. Some, like Luce, face the void bravely and with eyes open; others spiral into despair. One hundred years later the terms of the debate are very different, but the stakes remain the same.