Tuesday, January 31, 2012

sad policemen beamed in from other worlds

Michel Bulteau, Rue de Téhéran, Paris, January 1978.

Each interview in the big middle of The Savage Detectives begins the same way: speaker, street (or park, airport, etc.), city, month and year.  Michel Bulteau is going to describe a surprise visit from an unknown  Mexican poet, Ulises Lima.  This is in chapter 7, which is all about Lima’s bohemian life in Paris.

Bulteau is a real writer of the French conceptual variety, co-author of Electrical Manifesto with Eyelids of Skirts, lead singer of Mahogany Brain, with which or whom he recorded With (Junk-Saucepan) When (Spoon-Trigger).  Why anyone bothers to write fiction is a puzzle.

So Bulteau said he would meet Lima at the metro station:

It’s only a few minutes from Rue de Téhéran to the Miromesnil metro station, walking fairly quickly, but you have to cross Boulevard Haussmann and then head along Avenue Percier and part of Rue la Boétie, streets that at this time of night are mostly lifeless, as if starting at ten they were bombarded with X-rays, and then –

I’ll just interrupt here to note the presence of a metaphor, a reasonably original one, which are if not rare also not especially thick in The Savage Detectives.  But Bolaño is mimicking casual speech, and often has to pay a price.  He makes up for it a couple of years later in By Night in Chile.  So Bulteau is heading to the metro station – no, hang on –

and then I thought that it might have been better to meet the stranger at the Monceau metro station, so that I would’ve had to walk in the opposite direction, from Rue Téhéran to Rue de Monceau, on to Avenue Ruysdaël and then Avenue Ferdousi, which crosses the Parc de Monceau, because at that time of night it’s full of junkies and dealers and sad policemen beamed in from other worlds, –

I will bet you five dollars and fifty cents that right now, somewhere in the world, some young Bolañist is working on a novel that he thinks will be titled Sad Policemen Beamed in from Other Worlds.  It will be quite difficult to collect on this bet, since the novel will not be published for many years, and will in the end be titled A Second Opportunity on Earth.

from other worlds,  the languid gloom of the park leading up to the Place de la République Dominicaine, an auspicious place for a meeting with the Mexican Death’s-Head.

You have probably already studied the Google map above, which shows the path Bulteau did not take to the metro station where he would not meet Ulises Lima (because he had already told him to go to a different station) but which he describes in such detail that he includes every street on which he would have set foot, no matter for how short a time.  Then he does the same thing in the direction he did take (see left).  Once they meet, the characters wander Paris, each turn onto a new street noted.

Bolaño is here exaggerating an effect that is one of the motifs of the novel, with the names of streets and bars and shops and villages included in obsessive detail by almost all of the dozens of speakers, no matter how different their voices are in other ways.  The kid with the diary gives a tour of Mexico City, not only the streets but the cross streets, which is quite handy when obsessively looking for clues about the novel.  Where is Amadeo Salvatierra’s apartment, or Rebecca Nodier’s bookstore, or the spot where García Madero is so startled by meeting Belano and Lima that he faints?  I gazed upon all of these spots from space, courtesy of Google.  When, in the last couple of pages, the kids are just driving around in Sonora (“February 10 Cucurpe, Tuape, Meresichic, Oopdepe”), their path doesn’t form any sort of pattern, does it?  No, just forget I asked that.

One amusing effect Bolaño gets from this naming neurosis is that it packs more poets and writers into this book about poetry and writing.  Firdawsi appears on Bulteau’s imagined path, the novel’s lone representative of classical Persian verse.  La Boétie was a writer, too, Montaigne’s friend.  Ruysdaël was merely a painter.  Other characters live on or visit streets named after Rubén Dario and Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens and – maybe that’s it.  No, I think there were a lot more.  We are surrounded by literature, at least if we are in France, or Mexico City.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Still, my story won’t be as coherent as I’d like.

Roberto Bolaño has been such a disappointment.  His over-inflated reputation would have been so much fun to puncture.   No, I’m not that kind of writer, but it would have been satisfying to read other people take down that fraud Bolaño and the fools who praise him.

Instead, the balloon seems to have been inflated to the proper poundage.  Oh well.  Maybe the next big hype will be a con job.  Let’s hope.

I liked them.  They reminded me of the beats. (The Savage Detectives, 183)

Did they ever.  If I had picked up The Savage Detectives without knowing anything about it, the first part of the novel, 137 pages of the diary of a seventeen year-old Mexico City neo-beatnik who has just discovered poetry and bohemianism, would have done me in.  Here’s the unimpressive page 90 test:

November 30

Last night something really bad happened.  I was at the Encrucijada Veracruzana, leaning on the bar, switching back and forth between writing poems and writing in my diary (I have no problem going from one format to the other), when Rosario and Brígida started to scream at each other at the back of the bar.  Soon the grisly drunks were taking sides and cheering them on so energetically that I couldn’t concentrate on my writing anymore and decided to slip away.

The voice of that kid is all too plausible.  650 pages of this - forget it!  Details of the Mexican setting aside, and the details do have their interest, I have read this book before; it’s just more of that kind of thing.  I would wonder why everyone was getting so hopped up about it.  Unless I had been lucky enough to flip ahead fifty or a hundred pages.

The idea of not knowing anything about The Savage Detectives before reading it - I just said that as a joke.

I’m not trying to justify myself.  I’m just trying to tell a story.  Maybe I’m also trying to understand its hidden workings, workings I wasn’t as aware of at the time but that weigh on me now.  Still, my story won’t be as coherent as I’d like.  (297)

I knew a lot about this book before I read it.  For example, that once that kid goes on the road with his angel-headed poet pals, on page 139, the one voice becomes many more, dozens more, and the single story shatters.  This is the flashy show-off section of the book, as Bolaño wanders the globe and mimics all sorts of different people, including an impressive variety of madmen, at the same time telling the story of a couple of the Mexican poets, but obliquely, and perhaps also telling yet another story in the negative space of the first one.  I would bet you eleven dollars that at least two of the sections were separately written short stories that were retrofitted into the novel. Bolaño expands one of the best of them into an entire novel.

Then after several hundred pages the party is over, everyone goes home, that proto-poet and his diary return, and I finally discover why Bolaño has made me spend so much time with that kid.  The key sentence, on the next to last page, was “I’ve read Césarea’s notebooks” (646).  I might well have said aloud, “Oh, I get it.”  But I should have gotten it quite a bit earlier.

I could go on and on like this.  It’s the great strength of book blogs, yes, that personal voice, my reaction?  Even though I haven’t said a dang thing.

Richard and Rise organized the shindig and link to even more fragmented voices.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Was it worth the effort? - closing with Pessoa's Message

Readers curious about Fernando Pessoa, those who plan to read The Book of Disquiet in the near future, for example, but who have been impatient with all of his poetry or my prose will find Carmela Ciararu’s 4,770 words worthwhile.  That appears to be a chapter from her recent book on pseudonyms.

I think I’ll end this run at Pessoa with a stumper, the only book of Portuguese poems from Pessoa’s lifetime, the 1934 Message.  Edwin Honig and Susan Brown include the entire thing, which only covers 23 pages, in the City Lights Poems of Fernando Pessoa. Plus six pages of notes.  It is the only work of Pessoa’s I have seen that, for a non-Portuguese reader, absolutely demands notes, as Pessoa works his way, stanza by stanza, through the succession of Portuguese kings and explorers.

Although, as I leaf through the poem, it looks less obscure.  Are young’uns in American schools still taught about the Portuguese explorers?  We were back in the old days.  And then all of the stuff about King Sebastian – that’s the Battle of the Three Kings!  And the sea monster is from The Lusiads.  The entire poem is a cryptic Modernist compression of The Lusiads.  Still, some obscurity:

First Part:  Coat of Arms
II.  The Castles
Seventh (II):  Philippa of Lancaster

What enigma was borne in your womb
Which bore only geniuses?
What archangel came on a day
To guard your maternal dreams?

Turn your somber visage toward us,
Princess of the Holy Grail,
Mortal womb of Empire,
Godmother of Portugal!

To the notes:  1359-1415, English wife of King João I (ruled 1385-1433, author of The Book of Hunting), six surviving children “were named The Illustrious Generation by Camões.”  I guess this is helpful.

King Sebastian, mentioned above, was killed in battle in Morocco but subsequently became a Portuguese King Arthur figure, a hero who would come to Portugal’s aid in dark times.  A cult or myth of Sebastianism recurs during difficult periods of Portuguese history, sometimes as political metaphor, and sometimes as something more mystical, which is what gets Pessoa’s attention.  Pessoa, who had a longtime interest in esoterica, climaxes the poem with a mishmash of messianic Sebastianism and Rosicrucian symbols (“On the dead and fateful Cross, \ The Rose of the Hidden One”) and the visions of the Portuguese mystic António Vieira.  Some of Vieira has only recently been brought into English, in a book tantalizingly entitled Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish and Other Texts.

In summary, no, I do not know what I am talking about.

In the middle of all of this sidewise patriotism and mystification is something else entirely:

Portuguese Sea

O sea of salt, how much of all your salt
Contains the tears of Portugal?
So we might sail, how many mothers wept,
How many sons have prayed in vain!
How many girls betrothed remained unwed
That we might possess you, Sea!

Was it worth the effort? Anything’s worth it
If the soul’s not petty.
If you’d sail beyond the Cape
Sail you must past cares, past grief.
God gave perils to the sea and sheer depth,
But mirrored heaven there.

I am tempted by an allegorical reading of the poem, one more personal to Pessoa than Portuguese seafaring, but I will instead abandon my own navigation of Pessoa here.  Until the end of March at least – The Book of Disquiet!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thank God I cannot know What inside me is going on! - Pessoa the poet

If I’m then told that it’s absurd to speak of someone who never existed, I reply that neither do I have proof that Lisbon ever existed or that I who write exist, or that anything does, whatever it is.

Just to remind myself what I am up against with Fernando Pessoa.  This line is from one of a number of introductions to his Collected Works or Selected Poems that Pessoa wrote, books that never existed during Pessoa’s life, not that I have proof either way.  Always Astonished: Selected Prose, tr. Edwin Honig, p. 14, that’s where I found that bit of epistemological skepticism.

The imaginary Pessoa is impossible to separate from the actual Pessoa.  The only reason I know that such a creature should be considered is that Campos and Reis discuss Pessoa, and mention that he, like them, changed poetic directions when he by chance met the shepherd poet Alberto Caeiro and heard him recite his poems.  Caeiro, Campos, and Reis are imaginary, so I am taking the Pessoa who lives in their world as similarly situated.  But of course the poems of Caeiro and his disciples exist in my world (I have read them, or I believe I have), so the fact that poems attributed to Fernando Pessoa also exist tells me nothing about which Pessoa, the real one or the otherly real one, wrote them.

Half the fun of messing around with Pessoa is writing nonsense like this.

The other half is reading his poems.  I think this one, from November 1914, should be taken as a product of Pessoa’s encounter with Caeiro, but it could just as well be the “real” Pessoa writing about his creation of the other poets:

The wind is blowing too hard
For me to be able to rest.
I sense there’s something in me
That’s coming to an end.

Perhaps this thing in my soul
That thinks life is real…
Perhaps this thing that’s calm
And makes my soul feel…

A hard wind is blowing.
I’m afraid of thinking.
If I let my mind go,
I’ll heighten my mystery.

Wind that passes and forgets,
Dust that rises and falls…
Thank God I cannot know
What inside me is going on! (Zenith)

The ellipses are Pessoa's. Feeling against thinking, internal versus external – these are common Pessoan concerns.  Campos feels, Reis thinks, Caeiro is, or so he says.  The wind that blows through this poem is some expression of psychological unease, one that the poet himself does not understand.

The last lines suggest that he prefers not to understand, which suggests to me that he knows more than he is revealing in the poem.  And that is what the heteronyms are for, to allow Pessoa to externalize his internal mysteries, to give him some distance from himself.  I guess.

The wind is never stilled.  It returns in later Pessoa poems. It is more frightening in this one from 1932, a sign of something dangerous:

The wind in the darkness howls,
Its sound reaching even farther.
The substance of my thought
Is that it cannot cease.

It seems the soul has a darkness
In which blows ever harder
A madness that derives
From wanting to understand.

The wind in the darkness rages,
Unable to free itself.
I’m a prisoner to my thought
As the wind is a prisoner to air. (Zenith)

I overemphasize the playfulness of Pessoa, but his self-fragmentation has a bleaker side.  The heteronyms can look like a defense against – I do not know what.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I tell with my thought - sad, cold Ricardo Reis

Ricardo Reis is the narrowest, most theoretical of Pessoa’s heteronyms.  His thinking is pinched; his poems are repetitive.  Not only does he only have a few themes or ideas to work with, he could go on at length about why he should be as narrow as he is.  “The colder the poetry, the truer it is,” he told Álvaro de Campos (H&B, Poems, p. 126).  Roughly speaking, Reis is a gloomy intellectual pagan, Epicurean and neoclassicist who in most of his poems imitates Horace’s odes.  He is the kind of guy who talks a lot about hedonism and freedom but never seems to have any fun himself.

I find Reis minor compared to the expansive Campos or the narrow but deeper Caeiro.  My judgment is conventional.  All three Pessoa collections I have read give the least space to Reis.  Two caveats, though.  First, perhaps because of his thinness, because he is so easy to define along certain dimensions but otherwise shadowy, later writers have made all kinds of curious uses of him.  I should read José Saramago’s 1986 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, shouldn’t I?  And at least one major Portuguese poet, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, has clearly gotten far more out of Reis than I can see.  I have just begun to read her – perhaps she will help me read Reis differently.

The second caveat is that minor poets write good poems.  Pessoa, as Reis, wrote many.

Lips red from wine,
White foreheads under roses,
Naked white forearms
Lying on the table:

May this be the picture
Wherein speechless, Lydia,
We’ll forever be inscribed
In the minds of the gods.

Rather than this life
As earthly men live it,
Full of the black dust
They raise from the roads.

The gods, by their example,
Help only those
Who seek to go nowhere
But in the river of things. (Zenith)

The last few lines of this 1915 poem reveal the influence of Alberto Caeiro, who helped Reis channel his paganism into poetry.  The first verse summarizes the paradox of Reis.  The scene at first sounds sensual, even lush, but is revealed to be frozen, lifeless.  Campos, an “earthly man,” would not be bothered by some black dust on his forehead.  Reis always uses his poems for abstract, ideal purposes.

Some of them are little more than statements of purpose or verse manifestos, like this early one, presumably used by Pessoa to clarify his concept of Reis:

Others narrate with lyres or harps
  I tell with my thought.
For he finds nothing, who through music
  Finds only what he feels.
Words weigh more which, carefully measured,
  Say that the world exists. (Zenith)

Many people would see this as an argument against poetry, however much Reis insists on the importance of form.  I am more curious about the early use of “nothing,” a favorite concept (“nowhere” in the first poem) of Reis:

Nothing comes of nothing.  We are nothing.
Briefly in sun, in air, we postpone
The unbreathable darkness that weighs us down
And humble earth imposes,
Delayed corpses that breed.
We’re stories telling stories, nothing. (Honig and Brown)

“Delayed corpses that breed” is the sort of line that makes me laugh, not cry or sigh or whatever I am supposed to feel, or since this is Reis, think.  I laugh with the vivacious Campos.

The Zenith book has minimal overlap with Honig and Brown.  Credit to the translators – in both books, Reis sounds like Reis.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Real and metaphysical gibberish in the age of the rubber stamp - Pessoa's great "Maritime Ode"

“Tobacco Shop,” from 1928, is an example of mature Campos, or mature Pessoa.  Post-Boom Pessoa.  The Boom was the invention, in 1914, of Alberto Caeiro and the writing of the poems The Keeper of Sheep, and the creation of the Campos and Reis heteronyms and the accompanying poems, especially two long Whitman-inspired poems by Campos, “Maritime Ode” and “Salutation to Walt Whitman.”

Along with the Caeiro poems, Pessoa’s blending of Whitman into his own thought is his most impressive achievement.  By impressive, I mean ambitious, or of large scope.  Pessoa wrote plenty of interesting short poems, and another impressive long one before he died.  I have barely brushed against “Maritime Ode,” and do not plan to interpret it today, so much as to poke at it.

Campos is “Alone, on the deserted dock,” looking “out toward Indefinitude” (?), watching a little steamer approach.  “Maritime Ode” is explicitly a descendant of Whitman’s great seashore poems.  Pessoa has made Campos a naval engineer by trade, perhaps only because he wanted the writer of this poem to have a direct connection with seafaring.  He asks “all you seafaring things” to

Give me metaphors, images, literature,
Because in actual fact, seriously, literally,
My sensations are a ship with its keel in the wind,
My imagination a half-sunken anchor,
My anxiety a broken oar,
And the weave of my nerves a net to dry on the beach.

“[I]n me a flywheel starts spinning lightly,” and the poet launches into an elaborate nautical visionary fantasy, much of which involves pirates (“The Pirate Chief!  King of the pirates! \ I pillage, I kill, I tear, I cut everything up!”).  Some of this is pretty ridiculous, but the violence and crime becomes more cruel and less cartoonish, until the poet makes a surprising masochistic flip and becomes the willing victim of the violence of the pirates.  “Subdue me like a dog you kick to death!” etc. etc.  It goes on for a while.  I cannot remember a Whitman poem that works itself into such a frenzy, that shrieks like “Maritime Ode.”

The intensity and pain are, fortunately, unsustainable; the flywheel slows, and Campos drops out of the vision:

Ah, how could I have thought and dreamt of such things?
How removed I am now from what I was a few minutes ago!
The hysteria of one’s sensations – first one thing, then the opposite!

The poem continues placidly, even gently, with a visit to a childhood aunt, some marveling at naval machinery and shipping.  This is “the age of the rubber stamp,” which does not sound so poetic, but Campos insists, with Whitman’s example behind him, that “Poetry hasn’t lost out a bit!”  The poet ends the poem still open to all sensations: “God knows what emotion” might be inspired by a “slow-moving crane” or the glitter of sunlight on the Lisbon buildings.

I have not even gotten to the “real and metaphysical gibberish” – now this is the poet for me! – of “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” which is punchier line for line – “Maritime Ode” is 34 pages in the Honig and Brown collection, “Salutation” nine pages, “Tobacco Shop” six.  Richard Zenith’s book omits both “Maritime Ode” and “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” possibly because they are ably translated elsewhere.  The two collections work well together.  Taking a run at Pessoa without sampling “Maritime Ode” would be a shame.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth but chocolates (but not for nonmetaphysical Stevens) - "Tobacco Shop" by Álvaro de Campos

I’m going to wander through a long Pessoa poem, “Tobacco Shop” (1928), written under the guise of Álvaro de Campos.  The translation is Honig and Brown’s, from the City Lights Poems of Fernando Pessoa.  Richard Zenith’s version is just as good.

“Tobacco Shop” begins with a typical paradox of Pessoan identity:

I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.

Campos is sitting across the street from a tobacco shop, which is symbolically serving as “reality,” or an anchor to the real, while the poet has some sort of epistemological crisis.  Campos was a naval engineer by profession, so I should artfully scatter metaphors like “anchor” throughout my post.

Today I’m mixed up, like someone who thought something and grasped it, then lost it.
Today I’m torn between the allegiance I owe
Something real outside me – the Tobacco Shop across the street,
And something real inside me – the feeling that it’s all a dream.

If the long, prosy lines remind you of Walt Whitman: yes, correct.

The poet has lost confidence in himself, in his art.  “I’ve secretly thought up more philosophies than Kant ever wrote down,” but to what purpose? “[W]e wake and the world is opaque.”

I take the poem as a train of thought (cross out “train,” insert, um, “steamboat”) which is intermittently interrupted by an ordinary event on the street, like a girl eating a chocolate: “Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth but chocolates.”  For some reason, though, Campos finds even the philosophy of chocolates unsatisfying, failing to provide reassurance.  He will die, as will his poems, and even his language, and so on to, in an adolescent touch, the entropic heat death of the universe.

At this point:

a man’s gone into the Tobacco Shop (to buy tobacco?)
And the plausible reality of it all suddenly hits me.
I’m getting up, full of energy, convinced, human,
And about to try writing these lines, which say the opposite.

Campos, of all the Pessoan poets, is the funniest, or at least the one most evidently amused by his own contradictions.

The poet has not quite left his reverie, narcotized by his own cigarettes (“As long as fate permits, I’ll go on smoking”).  But he is almost ready to return to ordinary concerns.  The man he saw before leaves the shop:

Ah, I know him; it’s nonmetaphysical Stevens.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner comes back to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Stevens turns around and sees me.
He waves me a hello, I shout back Hello Stevens! and the universe
Reorganizes itself for me, without hopes or ideals, and the Tobacco Shop Owner smiles.

And that’s the end of “Tobacco Shop.”

I find Campos to be the “biggest” of Pessoa’s personae, the one with the most energy, the one who, like Whitman, is unafraid of contradiction.  He is a true follower of Alberto Caeiro (“I went off to the country with great plans \ But found only grass and trees there”), allowing things to be themselves, but also a dreamer, imaging things to be other than what they are, at least until nonmetaphysical Stevens brings him back to earth (strike that – drags him back to shore).

Friday, January 20, 2012

I believe in their infinite number - or Pessoa's fun with heteronyms

The two Pessoa collections I have been thumbing through (Zenith, Honing & Brown) both divide Pessoa’s poems by heteronym; the old and excellent Peter Rickard translation does the same thing.  Alberto Caeiro’s poems always comes first.  Álvaro de Campos always gets the most pages; Ricardo Reis the least.  A highly recommended exception is the Honig and Brown book that assembles Caeiro’s The Keeper of Sheep into a single, separate book.

Even with the Caeiro-only book – no, moreso – the emphasis of the editors is on the character, on the imagined poet.  Pessoa-himself fades.  Caeiro brightens.  This is why I like the Caeiro-only book: Pessoa’s fiction is so convincing.  These are just the poems the semi-naïve non-shepherd genius poet would have written.  No wonder Reis and Pessoa and Campos were so impressed.

Both Zenith and Honig & Brown preface each heteronym’s section with explanatory material about the poet.  Zenith writes his own summary, while Honig & Brown go to the author himself (authors themselves).  Pessoa says Ricardo Reis “was born inside my soul on January 29, 1914, around 11 o’clock at night.”  An invented brother describes Reis’s philosophy as “sad Epicureanism.”  Then Reis describes his own aesthetic  and spiritual beliefs: “The colder the poetry, the truer it is”; “I believe in the existence of the gods; I believe in their infinite number, in the possibility of man to ascend to divinity.”  All of this is from Poems of Fernando Pessoa, Honig and Brown, pp. 125-6.  Edwin Honig’s selection of Pessoa’s prose, Always Astonished (1988), has more more more of this stuff.

All of this phony biography and positioning and commentary comes before the poems themselves.  The editors seem to think it is important to know beforehand.  This is an amusing challenge to readers who dismiss any interest in the biography of the author, and a different challenge, also amusing, to readers who demand a biographical capsule before starting any new author.  Here is the biography and more, but all invented.  Or ignore the biography, and miss much of the intent and inventiveness of the actual author.

Well, in reality, we can read in multiple ways, yes?  The imagined author, the real author hidden by the imagined, the text as such.  Pessoa gives the reader more to play with, not less.

The great question is what creative problem the heteronyms solved for Pessoa.  The primary problem must have been idiosyncratic, a search for a means of expression that could contain his ideas.  But I think there was another purpose.  Pessoa was, like many of his conceptual peers, obsessed with artistic “movements,” Symbolism and Futurism and Cubism, that sort of thing.  All of these were imports into Portugal. 

The cluster of fictional poets allowed Pessoa to immediately create his own Modernist Portuguese movement.  One poet becomes four; the surviving poets (Caeiro unfortunately died in 1915, soon after writing the Keeper of Sheep poems) could then behave like members of a movement, promoting or arguing with each other.  I do not believe that Pessoa ever expelled any of his creations from the movement which would have been a good joke, especially if the poet he expelled had been Fernando Pessoa.

The movement, as such, is Sensationism, which I will summarize with these lines of Caeiro’s:

To think a flower is to see it and smell it
And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning. (IX, H&B, 17)

and then with any luck I will never mention Sensationism again.  I am not so interested in “movements” or schools, but I am not a conceptual artist.

Next week, poems, just poems.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Conceptual Pessoa - no need to read him; just read about him

Everyone who writes about Fernando Pessoa spends too much time describing the heteronyms, his stable of invented poets who wrote real poems.  Critics and translators have trouble moving from the concept of Pessoa’s poetry to the poems themselves.  The English-language collections I have been reading include substantial supplementary prose, often by Pessoa (or Reis, or Campos), explaining or mystifying the different characters.   I include myself – see today, see yesterday, see, I would guess, tomorrow.  When, last spring, I spent several days writing about the poems of Alberto Caeiro while pretending that I did not know that he was an invention of Pessoa’s, I was in part trying to move away from the heteronyms and spend some time with the poems as poetry.

Alternately, writers spend, if anything, too little time on the nature of Campos and Reis and the dozens of other Pessoa names.  Readers skeptical of conceptual innovations might ask if there is any need to read any of the actual poems.  The concept of the poet-turned-dramatist, who creates a little universe of poets who know and write about each other, and who writes poems in their voices or from their aesthetic stance – is this idea not entirely graspable from its description?  Does it matter at all, for the concept to be useful, if the poems are any good, or if they exist at all?

By which I mean: a budding conceptual poet (or painter, or composer) could very well read about what Pessoa did and extend the idea into his own work without knowing a thing about what Pessoa wrote.  Why not attribute paintings in different styles to different imaginary painters, each with their own biography and aesthetic stance, why not invent critics to misunderstand the paintings?

Creating the artworks, the real poems by imaginary poets, is actually a different idea than simply positing their existence.  If nothing else, it makes the joke funnier.  I am thinking of a conceptual artist like Tom Friedman – imagining a self-portrait carved out of a single aspirin is funny, but creating such an object is even funnier (search for “bust”).

Although the writing of the poems was important for Pessoa, it is not at all clear how much their publication mattered.  It is unfortunately even less clear for me as I read the English collections of his work, since the translators are often vague about the wheres and whens of publication.  Am I reading something that Pessoa published in one of the literary magazines he helped found himself, or in someone else’s magazine, or is this one of the texts from the huge volume of unpublished manuscripts Pessoa left behind?

The Book of Disquiet, I remind myself, was not published until 45 years after Pessoa’s death.  Pessoa did publish a substantial amount of magazine writing, criticism and essays and poems, but he only finished  four books, all of them more like chapbooks:  two little collections of English poems – Pessoa had written poetry in English since he was a child - Antinous and 35 Sonnets, both appearing in 1917, another English-language collection in 1920, and a peculiar nationalistic mini-epic, Message, from 1934, which was “awarded a prize by the Ministry of national Propaganda, under very special circumstances” (Honig & Brown quoting Pessoa, p. 222).  Pessoa planned to publish a larger collection of his poems, but died in 1935, age 47.  His bibliography now resembles that of his contemporary Franz Kafka, a mix of the published and unpublished, the complete and incomplete, the public and private.

At some point I should try to get to the poems, and ignore or at least suppress the cloud of text that surrounds them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The poet is a faker \ Who’s so good at his act - a start on Pessoa

I have been reading Pessoa, and thinking, if that is not too strong a claim, about his poems and his project.  The examples I wrote about Monday and yesterday have certain Pessoan qualities to them.

Fernando Pessoa had been interested and had written in pseudonyms from an early age, but in 1914 he made or had a conceptual breakthrough, quickly writing a series of poems as if they were written by a fictional poet, a poet with his own biography and distinct philosophical and aesthetic ideas.  That poet was Alberto Caeiro, the naïve shepherd poet, the poems the bulk of The Keeper of Sheep.

At this point, Pessoa was not doing anything much different than writing in character, like Robert Browning writing dramatic monologues or a playwright creating a character.  The result was impressive – I think the poems that resulted are themselves extraordinary, certainly much more interesting than what I have read of Pessoa’s earlier poetry.

The next step, though, is the wild one.  Having summoned one poet, he quickly conjured a couple more, both of whom, in their fictional (but also real) writings claimed their Caeiro as life-changing, inspirational forebear.  The classicizing neo-pagan doctor Ricardo Reis was one poet; the ecstatic naval engineer Álvaro de Campos was another.  Pessoa wrote – and published – essays by each poet, discussing the influence of Caeiro on their work, and arguing with each other’s interpretation of their master.  At one point they even interview each other.  They both agree that Fernando Pessoa is a peculiar fellow who completely misunderstands Caeiro.


The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

And those who read his words
Will feel in what he wrote
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they don’t.

And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.

This is a Fernando Pessoa poem written in 1931, after Pessoa had been working on his heteronyms for fifteen years.  I like this Richard Zenith translation, and its forthright emphasis of the poem’s central paradox, better than its competition.*

“Fernando Pessoa” has at this point become another heteronym, another mask.  Attaching the name of Pessoa to a text simply means that the actual Pessoa is working with that particular character.  The real Pessoa, for example, actually wrote the poems of Alberto Caeiro.  The character Pessoa did not, and in fact is a disciple of Caeiro, just like Reis and Campos.  All three had their (fictional) lives changed by a lucky encounter with (fictional) Caeiro and his (real) unpublished poems, inspiring their own new and superior (real) poems.

If the poems were no good, none of this would matter much.  The most amazing feature of the conceit is that it resulted in great poems, and allowed the real Pessoa to be a great poet.  The second most amazing thing, to me, is that Pessoa was able to successfully create two quite different fictional great poets (Campos and Caeiro), one promising but self-limiting minor poet (Reis), and another messy, irritating, but occasionally brilliant one (Pessoa).

My plan is to keep writing about Pessoa until he exhausts me.

* Zenith’s version is on p. 247 of Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems (1998); an alternative on p. 167 of Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown’s Poems of Fernando Pessoa (1986 & 1998).  These are the two books of poems I will use as I mess around with Pessoa.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Eça de Queiros and his doubles - cluck-cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck-cluck!

Here’s another example:

Eça de Queiros and some of his prankster pals published, in 1869, a set of poems under the name of Fradique Mendes, Portuguese knockoffs of Baudelaire and other French avant-gardists.  Decades later, Eça resurrected the poet, making him the ideal post-Romantic type of the Great Man, brilliant and elegant, like the protagonist of The Maias but with more energy and talent.  The eventual result was a short novel-like object, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes (1888/1901), which pretends to be a collection of the letters of this exemplar, preceded by the author’s, Eça’s, own encounters with and biography of him.

The first joke is that “Eça” discovers Fradique Mendes through his only published works, those poems, “a revelation in art, a dawn of poetry coming into birth to bathe young souls in the light and special warmth to which they aspired” (5).  The second joke is thus Eça turning himself into the absurd devotee of poems he wrote as a gag.

The letters themselves are full of anecdotes, sketches, jokes with punchlines, witty asides, overheated rhetoric, and nothing resembling a story.  Some of the letters are addressed to real people.  Eça de Queiros can express outrageous views while hidden behind Fradique Mendes:

A man should only speak with impeccable assurance and purity the language of his own country; all the others he should speak poorly, poorly but proudly, with the flat and false accent that immediately marks him as a foreigner…  His patriotism disappears, diluted by foreignness. (73-4)

But of course, the witty and ironic Fradique may not mean a word he writes; the letter ends with conclusive evidence of his “admirable aunt who spoke only Portuguese (or rather, the Minho dialect).”  Wherever she traveled:

[she] would call over the waiter, fix her sharp and meaningful eyes on him, and squat gravely on the carper and imitate, with a slow puffing up of her ample skirts, a hen in the act of laying as she shouted cluck-cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck-cluck! (75)

And she always got her eggs.

The example I want to keep is that of the novelist coming up with a fictional mouthpiece, a common enough practice, but then pairing him up with a parodic version of himself, perhaps still common, but then making both character and narrator so inscrutably ironic that the author is not only free to express his most deeply-held views, but also their opposite, and, why not, some other ideas that no one believes, but are amusing.

Gregory Rabassa gave this novel its English debut.  I wrote at some point that I was not so concerned with where to start with a writer like Eça, but I would like to amend that opinion: do not start with Correspondence of Fradique Mendes.  The jokes are of the inside variety – I guess an outside joke is merely a joke.  The way to join the jokes on the inside of this novel is to read a lot of 19th century French poetry and a stack of Eça de Queiros novels, two good ideas.

Monday, January 16, 2012

It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up. - Stone Arabia's rock star

Here’s an example:

Nik Worth was a Los Angeles rock musician who almost made it big with his New Wave band The Fakes, circa 1980.  When the Fakes split up, so does Nik, into the “real” Nik, who tends bar, and the Nik who became a famous rock star.  Stone Arabia (2011), the Dana Spiotta novel starring Nik, is a fantasy novel of the non- magical variety.  Nik had always kept elaborate scrapbooks documenting his life and work (the Chronicles).  So he does not stop; that is all there is to it:

Nik’s Chronicles adhered to the facts and then didn’t.  When Nik’s dog died in real life, his dog died in the Chronicles.  But in the Chronicles he got a big funeral and a tribute album.  Fans sent in thousands of condolence cards.  But it wasn’t always clear what was conjured.  The music for the tribute album actually exists, as does the cover art for it… But the fan letters didn’t exist.  In this way Nik chronicled his years in minute but twisted detail.  The volumes were all there, a version of nearly every day of the past thirty years. (37)

The material evidence, the music and album art and press materials, of the existence of Nik’s alternative life is central to the concept:

After he left, I put on Nik’s fake illicit record.  He has made a gorgeous little cardboard digipak for the CD.  It was deliberately sort of rough, so it would look like a bootleg.  He had several fake “unauthorized” labels; this was a Mountebank Industries release, which meant it was acoustic demos, not a live concert bootleg…  Nik said he had to tolerate these little sub-rosa products – after all, the fans demanded more than the bands could officially release. (129)

The novel actually begins with the ten-year-old Nik’s cartoon journal, with “elaborate ink drawings of dogs and cats behaving like far-out hipsters” (1).  He might have become an artist if his part-time father had not given him a guitar.  Nik develops a real talent for songwriting, which leads to bands, and LPs, and an agent, and a crash.  But something about Nik’s creativity does not really require any of the external signs of success that he has not created himself.  He can record music, draw posters, write reviews, and be interviewed (by himself).  See pp. 42-43, where his frustrated sister comments “It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up.”  I am not sure that she is right about that.

The novel is set in 2004, twenty-five years after Nik’s bold creative move, or breakdown, or whatever it is.  He is turning fifty.  It is time to wrap up the persona; that’s the plot of the novel, or Nik’s plot.

Stone Arabia is narrated, or “written,” by Nik’s perplexed and forgiving sister.  She has her own problems – fear of aging, misplaced sympathetic energy, information anxiety – none of which I found half as interesting as Spiotta’s exploration of Nik Worth’s uncompromising private creativity, although the novel clearly needed a more ordinary point of view to tell Nik’s story.  I wish the narrator were a better writer (she’s OK – see above, that’s all her), although that might violate the concept.  She is Nik’s audience, almost the only person who hears his music and reads his Chronicles.  I mean the “real” Nik’s audience.  I mean the other Nik.  I mean both, I guess.

Regardless:  I want to keep Nik’s example in reserve this week.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Dorrit miscellaney, with rambling, backtracking, and a well-marked and necessary spoiler alert

1.  I have been coming at Little Dorrit from a funny angle, worrying about characters and gentlemen, when the great thing about this novel, I mean aside from the usual virtues of Dickens, is the language, the intense and complex pattern of imagery that he creates and sustains.  The first chapter is titled “Sun and Shadow;” it is set, once we wander past a bird’s-eye view of Marseilles, in the cell of a “villainous prison.”  Sun, shadow, prison – these three basic concepts, in the right hands, turn out to be almost sufficient to carry an 800 page novel.  The combinations of the ideas are complex, more than the ideas themselves.

2.  A couple of years ago I was startled by the number of prisons and prisoners I was encountering in French literature, and I wondered about their absence from English literature.  Absence outside of Dickens, that is, and, curiously, the poetry of Emily Brontë.  Little Dorrit is full of prisons: literal prisons, for crimes and debts, a parrot cage, prison-like non-prisons (a Swiss monastery), and figurative prisons: poverty, or senility, or being an invalid, confined in bed, for example.  Innumerable creative variations on the theme.

Bleak House is constructed like this, too (with a different pack of images and rhetoric), in its omnisciently narrated sections at least, and I expect Our Mutual Friend to be built of similar stuff.  These novels are superb handmade objects.

3.  So why do I dwell, in what I write, on the weaknesses of Dickens, or on the problems he is trying to solve?  Because I simply assume that he is the world’s greatest novelist.  I am creating a vague mental weighted index of social reach, human insight, complexity of pattern, linguistic daring, humor, and so on – breadth, depth, scope, reach.  All the good stuff fiction writers do.  Balzac’s social acuity is comparable, and any number of novelists are sharper thinkers than Dickens.  He has few rivals in rhetorical range – just Victor Hugo, perhaps – or in the ability to define characters (the minor characters) so quickly and permanently.  A reader who gives far more weight than I do to, for example, depth of thought will calculate the index rather differently.

4.  Lionel Trilling, in his 1952 introduction to the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition of Little Dorrit, wonders why “of the three [big late novels] it is perhaps the least established with modern readers” (v).  I like that neutral word: not least “liked” but least “established.”  Perhaps that is the other reason I have been poking at the deceptively gray central characters.  Why does nobody care about Little Dorrit? Or care enough, or care about it relative to Bleak House or Great Expectations.

Now that I have read the book, I care a lot about how it was put together, why certain passages work so well, and even how Dickens uses the characters and rhetoric to achieve emotional effects that still work, even with all of my distance.  I do not think there is as uplifting a moment in Dickens, no, in all of English literature, as when, on the last page of the book, (spoiler alert!) our heroine takes the initial steps of her new life as the first and greatest of all Victorian lady travelers, Dorrit the Explorrit.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's my intent to be a gentleman. It's my game. - Dickens solves another problem

Where is that thing I wrote about Dickens and gentlemen?  No, it was Trollope, wasn’t it?  Let me check the archives – Margaret Oliphant, of course.  I had a point back then that comes up in Little Dorrit.

My point is: Charles Dickens, for all of his sympathy for the deserving poor, had trouble imagining his way past the idea of the status of the gentleman.  Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) is the example I always revert to, where a central problem for Nicholas and his sister is that they have to work below their station; similarly, although David Copperfield may believe that no boy should work in a factory, he seems to believe in particular that no boy of his upbringing should do so.

Possibly the problem for Dickens was not one of politics but of art – how to move past received ideas of gentlemanly status not in life, but in fiction.  Regardless, Little Dorrit contained a surprise for me: a direct assault on the idea of the gentleman, or at least a newly complicated understanding of the concept.

See the villain of Little Dorrit, Rigaud, for example:

'Haha!  You are right!  A gentleman I am!  And a gentleman I'll live, and a gentleman I'll die!  It's my intent to be a gentleman.  It's my game.  Death of my soul, I play it out wherever I go!' (Ch. I.1)

This declaration is on page 9 of the edition I am reading.  Rigaud is, at that moment, in a French jail cell, awaiting trial for murder.  The prison theme and the gentleman theme are chained together right at the beginning of the book.

The more complex and pathetic player of the “game” of gentlemanliness is Little Dorrit’s father, the longtime inhabitant of the debtors’ prison, who maintains a fiction of gentility at the expense, primarily, of his daughter.  Everyone participates in the farce – here the prison turnkey describes Mr. Dorrit, jailhouse celebrity:

'Brought up as a gentleman, he was, if ever a man was.  Ed'cated at no end of expense.  Went into the Marshal's house once to try a new piano for him.  Played it, I understand, like one o'clock – beautiful!  As to languages – speaks anything.  We've had a Frenchman here in his time, and it's my opinion he knowed more French than the Frenchman did.  We've had an Italian here in his time, and he shut him up in about half a minute.’  (I.6)

The business about French and Italian turns out to be foreshadowing.  In Rome, hundreds of pages later, we finally see the destructive toll of Mr. Dorrit’s desperate attempt to convince himself that his birth and ed’cation mattered more than anything he actually did with his life.

His daughter, Little Dorrit, embodies a transcendence of class status.  She is a believer in works, not faith.  Dickens has been moving towards this ending over the course of several novels.  As Little Dorrit ends, not every piece is in its place, not every problem has been resolved.  Amy Dorrit ends the novel as (spoiler alert!) Agent Dorrit, crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of the most dangerous enemies of the Crown.  Or if not that, with “a modest life of usefulness and happiness” (last paragraph).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On to the next character in Little Dorrit - failed benevolence

How does plot affect character?  The events of a story can change a character, or reveal character.  Or do nothing, I suppose, as is all too common.  I suggested yesterday that Dickens used the plot of Little Dorrit to reveal the complexities of the title character.  Amy Dorrit becomes more interesting as I see her from new angles.

The host of ombhurbhuva, in a comment on that post, suggested that Amy was particularly interesting “because of her lapses in serenity and her opposition to the fatuity of the rest of the Dorrit clan.”  As the story progresses, Amy’s circumstances change, wildly, but she always has lapses in serenity – but new kinds of lapses; she always stands opposed – but in new ways – to the fatuity of her family.  She looks different in light than in shadow, to follow one of the themes of Little Dorrit, but is recognizably the same person.

Well, it is clear enough how I read.  I am trying to get a good look at the patterns the author is creating.  In big, mature Dickens novels like Bleak House and Little Dorrit, the variety and intricacy of the patterns are amazing.

The hero of the novel, Arthur Clennam, also looks more interesting as the plot moves, but the pattern is the inverse of the heroine’s.  Little Dorrit turns out to be bigger than she first appears, more full than the old type of Dickens heroine.  Arthur turns out to be smaller than he first appears.

A great flaw of many of the earlier Dickens novels is the clumsy use of jolly, benevolent, independently wealthy, charitable men, practitioners of the Philosophy of Christmas*, who can end a novel by cleaning up the mess, rewarding the good and improving the less good.  Sometimes the device leads to a great character (Mr. Pickwick), but sometimes it is not only dramatically flat but vaguely creepy (the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby).  In Bleak House, Dickens successfully complicated the device, and I think he is doing something similar in Little Dorrit.  Arthur aspires to be a benevolent Dickens character, but fails.

His story presents him with a series of attempts to improve the lives of others; he proceeds to botch each one, usually even misunderstanding the problem.  For example, back in England from China after twenty years, Arthur becomes convinced that his parents did something long ago to injure William Dorrit, trapping him in the debtors’ prison.  Mrs. Clennam is employing Little Dorrit as a seamstress – ah ha! – presumably to assuage her guilt.  Arthur will right the wrong!  But his efforts go nowhere (although he coincidentally causes others to act), in part because he misinterpreted every available clue.

Arthur is not a lot of fun to spend time with.  He is resentful, depressive, and fails at every significant attempt at benevolence.  He is eventually crushed and redeemed through suffering, giving him just enough strength to (spoiler alert!) survive the climactic, house-shattering battle with Little Dorrit’s malevolent twin, Anti-Dorrit.  But for me, seeing how Dickens creates the pattern of Arthur’s repeated well-meaning failures, and how it is the pattern that reveals Arthur’s character more than any individual scene, was interesting enough.

*  Borrowed from Chapter II, “Benevolence,” p. 52, of The Dickens World (1941) by Humphrey House.  The great Dickens idea is “all-the-year-round Christmas.”  Aimed at almost any other writer, this would be a devastating criticism.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I care about Little Dorrit - many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into

Most Dickens novels have memorable but otherwise useless titles.  I mean, Nicholas Nickleby is a name that sticks, but gives no hint about what it is in the book.  I have a tag for each novel that helped me keep them straight before I read them.  Still helps, actually.  NN has abusive Yorkshire schools, Martin Chuzzlewit goes to America, Little Dorrit is the debtors’ prison novel.

Little Amy Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea Prison, where her typically useless Dickens father has been imprisoned for twenty-three years.*  So Amy is an adult, twenty-two when the novel begins, although people often mistake her for a child.  It is the father, not the daughter, who is the debtor, so although Amy lives in the prison she can leave it to earn money which she uses to support, at various times, her frivolous but spirited sister, her useless brother, and, always, her parasitical father.  Little Dorrit is little, symbolically, because of her self-sacrifice and the exploitation by her family, physiologically, because of malnutrition during childhood.

How does Dickens make the virtuous Amy Dorrit interesting or “real,” to the extent that she is (frankly, she fades in and out a bit)?  He has a couple of tools.  First, and more interesting to me, but perversely what I do not want to write about, is the symbolic world that Amy creates for herself.  We do not cling to her thoughts like we would in a Woolf novel, but we do see what she sees:

Then she would flit along the yard, climb the scores of stairs that led to her room, and take her seat at the window.  Many combinations did those spikes upon the wall assume, many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into, many golden touches fell upon the rust, while Little Dorrit sat there musing. (I. 24).

Dickens rings a dozen changes on this passage, Amy’s view of those spikes, but I picked this one because it is followed by Amy’s Parable of the Princess and the Shadow, a story she tells, and another way Dickens defines Amy’s character by describing the symbolic world she creates herself (and shares with the symbolic world of the novel).

The other trick Dickens has, one that I now see is characteristic of his late novels, is to complicate her virtue.  Amy is too self-sacrificing, too good, and the novel is ethically complex enough to recognize that this is a problem, that Amy, to use current lingo, enables some of the worst behavior of her father and other relatives.  Readers looking for Strong Female Characters will find her frustrating: no one is stronger, but her strength is misapplied, and she has no interest in independence.   Little Dorrit has a caring temperament, and would have been, for example, an outstanding nurse – she is akin to a number of characters in the Elizabeth Gaskell stories that Dickens was editing and publishing at the time.  But she has allowed her family, her father especially, to manipulate her sense of duty.

For the first half of the novel, Amy is martyr to her family, which, for all of her strength, damages her.  About halfway through, Amy is relieved of her labors, but is also no longer able to be a caregiver, which turns out to be even worse for her, psychologically (I am simplifying a little – e.g., the love plot, her homesickness).  This is now an interesting character, yes?  And all done with plot, plot used to test or highlight character.  The heroine grows in complexity as the plot unfolds. 

A disadvantage: she is thus not all that interesting early on, and I am not sure the balance Amy achieves at the end of the novel is as satisfying as it could be, although I am pretty sure that Dickens is deliberately maintaining some of the complications rather than brushing them all away as he would in one of his early novels – “the noisy and the eager, the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar” (last line).

Still, it is enormously satisfying when, at the end of the book, Little Dorrit, finally escaping from the draining leeches who have always surrounded her rapidly becomes (spoiler alert) Giant Dorrit.  The final chapter, when Amy wades into the estuary of the Thames and single-handedly demolishes the invading Russian fleet, and final scene, when the Queen awards Amy the Victoria Cross (a forgivable anachronism), are triumphs.

*  I was saddened to learn that, despite the closure of the Marshalsea in 1842, obooki is currently imprisoned there.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Nobody cares about Little Dorrit

The nobly suffering character, not the novel, Little Dorrit (1855-7).  My title is the only distinct line I remember from the teacher of a long-ago undergraduate English class, Modern British Novels (Dubliners, Mrs. Dalloway, The Good Soldier, and several more).  For the proper effect, read with an exaggerated comic sneer, emphasis on “nobody” and “Little Dorrit.”

Now, my professor did not exactly mean it.  We were working on the question of interiority and roundedness, how the techniques of Woolf and Joyce, with the voice of the author as such suppressed as much as possible, could make their characters, not obviously interesting people on the surface, seem so alive and “real.”  The professor was presumably also cheating by subtly playing up our preference for serious-minded Modernist stringency as opposed to soft-minded Dickensian sentimentality.  Imagine Conrad or Joyce naming a character “Little” as anything but parody!  Little Nell, Little Jo, Little Dorrit – Dickens means something by it.

I wonder, now, how many of my fellow students even knew what the prof was talking about, how many knew who or what Little Dorrit was?  But a good teacher not only cultivates knowledge but scatters seeds by the fistful.

Ironically, Little Dorrit is, for a Charles Dickens heroine, not so bad.  The book's hero is also not so bad.  If the two central characters are still less interesting (round, alive, “real”) than those of the typical Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Gaskell, or Brontë novel, or, more to the point, of the earlier Bleak House or the later Great Expectations, progress is at least visible.  The protagonists are now Dickens characters, not plagiarisms of Walter Scott.  Actually, this had been true for a decade of Dickens novels, since Dombey and Son (1847), but Dickens is still improving.

I am only worrying here about the protagonists, of course.  A dozen of the so-called minor characters are typically brilliant – Flora Finching and Mrs. F’s Aunt (“Bring him for’ard , and I’ll chuck him out o’ winder!”), for example.  As if to remind us his previous insipid heroines, Dickens even includes one in the background, the hideous Pet Meagles, “a fair, fresh, pretty girl.”  Not one of those, ugh!

The technical challenge in this novel was to give the less eccentric characters, Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam, some kind of novelistic life without the advantages of the first-person narration of David Copperfield and Bleak House, and with a couple of serious handicaps: the hero is well-meaning but useless, the heroine useful to the point of martyrdom.  And Dickens only has limited facility with the “free indirect” tool, the one that Joyce and Woolf use to do such extraordinary things, that Gustave Flaubert is at this exact moment perfecting with Madame Bovary (1856-7).  How does Dickens do it?

I guess I will write about Little Dorrit for a while longer.  I do not care a lot, but I care.  How I wept when, on the last page of the novel (spoiler alert!), the ever-shrinking Little Dorrit finally vanished with a barely audible “pop.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

They had no choice: it was, after all, that or nothing - Juan José Saer’s The Witness, a novel found on many lists

I am tempted to write more about book lists, but will restrain myself, by which I mean, save it for later, and try to write something about an actual book I recently read, Juan José Saer’s The Witness (1983), one more example of the Argentinean Literature of Doom.  The novel is, it turns out, one of the 1,001 Books I Must Read before I Die, and I am thus almost 0.1% more reconciled to my death.  I will bet you that I picked the book off of a different list, a critics’ poll of The 100 Best Novels in Spanish Language, 1981-2006, in which The Witness is #12.

A 16th century Spanish cabin boy is captured by Amazonian cannibals.  He lives with them for ten years.  The novel is his account, written many decades later, of his time with these people.  So on the surface it appears to be a historical novel that nods at Robinson Crusoe, or is perhaps a revisionist history of the conquest of the Americas.  It is not, not really.

Saer’s book is a full-fledged novel of ideas, sub-category: linguistic and anthropological.  The author makes no attempt to mimic the language or mindset of an early modern writer.  The historical details are minimal, and not the result of hours in the library.  Or not in the history section – I would guess that Saer ground through a shelf or two of ethnography and linguistics, plus an additional stack of Claude Lévi-Strauss.  If I knew what was in The Raw and the Cooked (1964), I could say that I found it in The Witness, but in fact I am just guessing.

What Saer needed from the 16th century Amazon was cannibals, so he set the story where he could find them.  He needed a society that was recognizably alien, so he could give it a special problem:

Their principal problem was the outer world.  They could not, as they might have wished, see themselves from outside. (128)

One way the narrator serves as the witness of the title* is that he helps the Indians see themselves from outside.   He helps them confirm their own existence:

There is no equivalent in their language for ‘to be’.  The closest equivalent they have means ‘to seem’…  [‘Seems’] implies an objection rather than a comparison. (130)

Saer uses this novel to explore a people and society with a epistemological problem: a radical uncertainty about their own existence, and the constant threat, with one mistake, of non-existence:

Even if it was unrewarding, they constantly worked at making that one known world real.  They had no choice: it was, after all, that or nothing.  (132)

My quotations have all been from the end of the short book.  Near the beginning is a single long scene, about a fifth of the novel, of a wild orgy that moves from roasted human flesh to alcohol to sex, all in large, life-threatening quantities, a society-wide Rimbaud-like derangement of the senses.  This strange and horrifying event is the narrator’s introduction to these people; the rest of the book is his attempt to make sense of it, to understand the problem the Indians are trying to solve.

If all of this sounds interesting, it is; if it sounds tedious, yes, a bit; if Saer’s fictional anthropological case study sounds like something other than what fiction does best, I have my doubts, as well.  But I did find the ideas and the path Saer took through them to be quite interesting.

Richard (Caravans de reuerdos) wrote some interesting things about another Saer novel, La Glosa (1986, #75 in the poll, so not as good as The Witness), and here's a Spanish literature student working on The Witness in some productive ways.

Margaret Jull Costa was, inevitably, the translator.

*  The English title, I mean.  Doesn’t El Entenado actually mean The Stepson?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Read The Book of Disquiet - before you DIE!

Yesterday, after putting up my invitation to read The Book of Disquiet along with whatever group of sharp characters plans to join in with me, I discovered that the novel-like non-novel has been included in the last couple of editions of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  So I used this as a marketing hook in my Twitter promotional effort, under the untested assumption that some readers out there somewhere are neurotically working off of (surely not through) this list.

I think this was my favorite joke (de-Twittered just a bit):

Imagine the poor reader, trapped in his deathbed, who has read all 1,001 books except #PessoaDisquiet.  He feebly turns the pages of the Richard Zenith translation, but his eyesight and concentration are insufficient for the difficult concepts and miniscule type of Pessoa’s text.  His strength wanes; the book slips from his fingers; he feels the icy shadow of Death approach, knowing that he ends his life unloved, and badly read.  Just one book short of being well-read, actually.

Do not be that reader.

Perhaps others are not so amused by the title of that book as I am.  The official position of Wuthering Expectations is that there is no book that a generalized “you” must read before “you” die.  Specific “you”s will want to consult a religious authority within “your” faith for some important exceptions.  Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet will not be among them.  I can come up with a long list of shoulds, but no musts, and even the shoulds need to be preceded by ifs.  E.g.:  If you are at all interested in literature, you should get to know some of Shakespeare’s plays.

 Not that I am knocking the Must Read book as such.  It is a list among many lists, but a pretty good one.  The accompanying website has a nifty gadget to search the list by date, language, nationality, and so on.  I find sixteen books in Portuguese, the oldest being The Lusiads, The Crime of Father Amaro, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, and Dom Casmurro, outstanding choices.  Then a standard cluster of Portuguese and Brazilian Modernists:  Amado, Lispector, Guimăres Rosa, Saramago, and Lobo Antunes (plus Pessoa).  And then two novels by Paulo Coelho, about whom I will admit suspicion but plead ignorance.  I doubt that the typical purchaser of Before You Die is quite so fond of avant garde fragmentation and alienation and extremely long paragraphs as this list of authors would suggest, but this is a great list for me.

The Must… Die list also includes a number of oddities I never see anywhere else, which I wish someone else would read and tell me about.  Who is up for Emilio Salgari’s The Tigers of Mompracem (1900), the second of an eleven-volume series about the adventures of a Malaysian pirate?  See left, and do not miss this amazing page of Salgari’s Italian book covers, provided by his current English-language publisher.  I would also like to hear, from a reliable book blogger, something about Ivan Vazov’s 1888 Under the Yoke, the classic Bulgarian epic.

Why did I write this?  Oh yes, to encourage morbid neurotics who read in order to make checkmarks in spreadsheets to read The Book of Disquiet with me.  To encourage other people, too.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It is more difficult to be someone else in prose - the Book of Disquiet readalong.

I am thinking March, aiming at the last week of March, as a good time to write about The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa’s semi-fictional non-novel un-diary.  Whatever it is.  I invite anyone interested to join in however they like.

The Book of Disquiet is only a novel in the sense that we now stretch the word “novel” to cover unclassifiable fictional objects.  The book has no obvious story, no plot, or characters aside from the narrator, but is instead a series of observations, sketches, and aphorisms, the diary of a Lisbon bookkeeper, Bernardo Soares.  Pessoa wrote that Soares has Pessoa’s style, but was “distinct from me in ideas, feelings, modes of perception, and understanding.”*  So the book is a fictional exercise of some sort.

I am in large measure the very prose I write.  I punctuate myself, and, in the unchained distribution of images, I wear newspaper hats, the way children do when they play at being king; by making rhythm out of a series of words, I crown myself, the way mad people do, with dried flowers that remain alive in my dreams.  And above all, I am tranquil, like a sawdust-stuffed doll, which, having acquired awareness of itself, shakes its head from time to time so that the bell on its pointed hat plays something, life rung by the dead, a minimal warning by Destiny. (152-3, Alfred Mac Adam translation)

Please see this essay at Vapour Trails for more Disquiet.

The What-is-it problem is worse than it seems.  The Book of Disquiet is unfinished, perhaps never meant to be finished, and was unpublished until 1982, forty-seven years after Pessoa’s death.  The order of the elements of the book cannot be established with certainty.  The text is not stable.

The book’s English history is odd, too.  Four versions exist (Richard Zenith, Alfred Mac Adam, Margaret Jull Costa, Iain Watson) all of which were published in 1991.  That must have been handy for book reviewers.  The Zenith version is the longest and most complete, including fragments and appendices and so on.  I will be reading Alfred Mac Adam.  The thing I want to emphasize is  that these are not just different translations, but translations of different texts, different orderings and excerpts of the mass of material.

I see this as an opportunity for a group read, not an obstacle.  With many readers, it might be possible to see more than I can by myself.  The Book of Disquiet is a perfect candidate for many readings, and many kinds of reading.  Seraillon recently finished it, over the course, he says, of two months (about four chapters a day).  Another reader may want to guzzle Pessoa, or just read fragments, such as the samples of The Book of Disquiet found in Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown’s Poems of Fernando Pessoa (1986) or Honig’s Always Astonished: Selected Prose (1988).

Pessoa wrote and even published one more ordinarily fictional piece of fiction, the 1922 story “The Anarchist Banker,” a thirty page short story of ideas that has characters and dialogue and even a story, the story of how the anarchist became a banker, and why the banker is still an anarchist.  Read that instead.  Or, like me, also.

OK, March.  The end of March.

A couple of other readalong opportunities will intersect with Wuthering Expectations:  Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (see Caravana de recuerdos and in lieu of a field guide) and Our Mutual Friend (see The Argumentative Old Git).  The former has more of a schedule, while the latter does not.  When I finish Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, I will have read every Dickens novel.  How many pages into Little Dorrit was I, by the way, before I realized that “Dorrit” only had one “t”?  (Answer: 200).  What kind of an English name is that?

*  This quotation, and the post’s title, are from the fragment of Pessoa’s “Concerning the Work of Bernardo Soares” found on p. 209 of the Honig and Brown Poems of Fernando Pessoa.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A year of good .... reading AHEAD - revisiting my New Year's resolutions

Happy 2012!  Blogging vacations stave in my writing.  Last year, to cooper the writing barrel,* I uncharacteristically resorted to New Year’s resolutions.  What would happen if I revisited them?

1. “I vow not to write bad prose this year.”  What was I thinking.  See two resolutions down for the grisly results.  I remind myself that resolutions are aspirational.  I did what I could.  This resolution is promoted to 2012.

2.  “I’ll read Middlemarch.”  And I didTess of the d’Urbervilles advances to the #1 pre-20th century British literature most-famous-book-I-ain’t-read slot.  For some reason, this does not irritate me as much as not knowing Middlemarch; nor does my lack of significant Zola, or the Henry James perplex.  The resolution served its purpose and is retired.

3.  “Finish fewer books.”  Meaning not what I wrote but:  abandon more books without finishing them.  Accomplished, although a disadvantage of the practice is that I have trouble remembering exactly which books I abandoned.  My memory palace is built for completed books, it seems.  Promote this one, too.  Abandon even more books.  Abandon even better books.

4.  “Write about music more.”  Jane Austen’s songbook.  A passion based on Hans Christian Andersen.  Massenet’s Thaïs.  I actually wrote, and deleted, an entire additional piece about Thaïs, tracing the musical motifs, which was valuable to write and deadly to read.

I wonder why more people do not write posts like these.  The key, for someone like me with only basic technical knowledge, is to write about music that has a text.  The connections between opera and literature are particularly rich.  Opera is just theater.

So more of this, more, more!  Something about Richard Wagner, maybe, or Charles Ives, The Concord Sonata, say.  What else would be fun?

5.  “Write shorter posts.”  Another triumph!  This is turning into one of those humblebrags.  I have been aiming at 500 words and staying under 600 when I want.  Going over when I want, too, but that has been rare.

The great advantage of writing a serial is that I can advance the beginning of an idea and receive feedback, spurs, corrections, and taunts, often from comments, always from myself, which may well improve the next day’s writing.  One decent idea at a time, that’s enough writing for a sitting.

Last year’s resolutions post was exactly 500 words long (that is just a regular old brag).

Tomorrow: plans.

The Federal Art Project poster atop the post is borrowed from the Library of Congress.  It depicts, with uncanny precision, the way I bring books home from my own library during the long winter.

*  This metaphor is terrible.  The attempt to use a more original, vivid verb in place of “hurt” is not by itself so bad, but once I had used it I felt the need to continue the conceit, because I had now conjured the smashed barrel, and, well, the wreckage you can see for yourself.  And thus, I demonstrate what vacations do to my writing.