Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Where does my song come from? - the poet Rubén Darío

So I will pick any poem.  That is what I said to do yesterday.  That’s a way to write about Rubén Darío.

No, not just any poem.  Some of Darío’s earliest poems are neo-Romantic imitations of Bécquer, and his breakthrough was as a poet who moved the innovations of Verlaine and other French avant-gardists into Spanish.  A number of Darío’s early poems are flawless takes on Verlaine.  So not those.

And not the long “Dialogue of the Centaurs,” even though Stanley Appelbaum calls it “very possibly Darío’s finest single poem” (xviii).  It is a philosophical dialogue among centaurs, in rhyming couplets:

I comprehend the secret of animals.  There are malevolent [Malignos]
beings and benevolent ones.  Between them are exchanged signals [signos]
of good and evil, hate or love, or else pain  [pena]
or joy:  the raven is evil and the ringdove is good.  [buena]

Darío’s range grew, though, his formal command and his subject matter.   His set of references moved far past classical antiquity to include the full range of Latin American history and Spanish-language literature, as in his prayer to “Our Lord Don Quixote,” who is enjoined to relieve the poet from his lost faith and “Nietzsche’s supermen,” or the lightly worn couplets of his “Epistle to Mrs. Leopold Lugones.”  And swans, always swans.  But I need to pick a poem.

It is 1906 or 1907.  Darío is living in Majorca for the winter, which sounds all right to me.  The title means “Alas!”:


    Here, beside the Latin sea,
I speak the truth:
In rock, olive oil, and wine I feel
my antiquity.

    Oh, how ancient I am, holy God,
oh how ancient I am!...
Where does my song come from?
And I, where am I going?

    The knowledge of myself
is already costing me
many moments of dejection,
and the how and the when...

    And this Latin clarity and brightness,
what good was it to me
at the entrance to the mine
of the self and the nonself?...

    A contented cloudwalker
I believe I can interpret
the secrets of the wind,
the land and the sea…

    Vague secrets
about being and nonbeing,
and fragments of awareness
about now and yesterday.

    As if in the midst of a wilderness,
I began to cry out;
and I gazed at the seemingly dead sun
and I burst into tears.

Ellipses all Darío’s.  Appelbaum’s translations are meant to assist language learners and are as literal and non-poetic as possible, so they are awfully thumping.  The Spanish verse sings:

    Y esta claridad latina,
¿De qué me sirvío
A la entrada de la mina
Del yo y el no yo…?

But even in prose, this poem has as much “claridad latina” as any of them.  Romantic subjectivity, Modernist cultural exploration; books and nature; that which is right in front of him and those “fragments of awareness” about what he feels must be out there, just within reach of the artist – no, just out of reach, always escaping him.

Thanks to Richard and Stu for Spanish Literature Month.  More, por favor, someday.

Monday, July 30, 2012

And I, lyric poet, mocked Faun, stood there watching the large alabaster birds seemingly making fun of me - Rubén Darío's stories

Where Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was a narrow poet who did one or two things perfectly – although he died young, so who knows what he might have done –  Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío revolutionized Spanish poetry by doing many things well.  I cannot get a fix on him, which makes him hard to write about.  Or perhaps I am wrong  and he is easy to write about.  Pick any poem or story and go, it is bound to be interesting.

So I will ignore his poetry for the moment and look at his stories.   Darío first made his mark with the 1888 Azul…, a volume of “9 stories, 6 poems, and some prose sketches about Chile.”*  Amazing what 9 stories and 6 poems can do.  It “marks the official birth of Modernism,” or so Octavio Paz tells me, although “[t]oday, it is an historical curiosity.”**  Paz means Spanish-language Modernism, modernismo.  Darío was among the first writers – and was likely the best writer – to bring the innovations of contemporary French writers like Paul Verlaine into Spanish.

The stories, or at least the ten I read, are short, punchy, and a lot of fun.  They verge on the prose poem or sketch, but always retain some minimum form of plot and character and visible meaning.  “The Case of Miss Amelia” (1894) is a genuine supernatural fantasy story, even if much of it is a parody of supernatural stories (the frame takes up four of the story’s five pages).  “The Bale” (1887) is pure Naturalism, a short but detailed account by a father of his son’s death in a workplace accident.  No lesson is presented or perhaps even possible.  A fairy story, an allegory, a fable about poetry, a bit of Parisian decadence.  A little of everything.

What do they have in common?  A light touch, aesthetic elegance.  The first line of “The Bale”:  “Far off there, on the line, seemingly drawn in blue pencil, that separates sea and sky, the sun was setting, with its powdery gold and its whorls of purplish sparks (torbellinos de chispas pupuradas), like a huge disk of white-hot iron.”  Every kind of story, even this brutal tale of a meaningless death, is draped with fine writing.

“The Death of the Empress of China” (1890) might be the purest of Darío’s stories.  A sculptor and his wife live in a sort of sticky bliss:

Suzette was the name of the little songbird that had been placed in a silk, plush, and lace cage by an artist, a dreamer and a huntsman who had captured her one May morning when the air was full of light and many rosebuds had opened.

Birdsong, flowers, fragrances fill the little story.  The woman is a metaphorical caged bird, but she also owns a caged bird, one that “becomes sad and stops singing whenever Suzette plays Chopin.”  The sculptor falls in love with a porcelain Chinese empress until the living doll Suzette reasserts her rights; that is the story as such.  Everything is aestheticized.  Is Darío critiquing the idea of “art for art’s sake” in this fantasy, or indulging it, suggesting that people should be treated like art objects.

I don’t know.  Darío’s stories are self-conscious art objects, meant to be admired on occasion and then returned to their jewel case.

The cryptic title is from a different story, "The Nymph (A Parisian Tale)," which is about imagination and inspiration, plus it mentions swans.  Darío was obsessed with swans.

* Stories and Poems, the 2002 Dover book edited and translated by Stanley Appelbaum, is my source for the stories.  The quote is on p. xi.

**  The version of the Paz essay I read is in Selected Poems of Rubén Darío, 1965, University of Texas Press, tr. Lysander Kemp.

Friday, July 27, 2012

We wanted only to amuse ourselves with him, but he took things too seriously - the beginning of the Argentine Literature of Doom

I am writing later than usual on this Friday evening in order to minimize the number of people reading this post at work.  “El matadero (The Slaughter House)” (written circa 1838, published 1871), the famous short story by the Argentine writer and politician Esteban Echeverría, is not safe for work.  Or play, for that matter.  It’s grisly.

We are in Buenos Aires during Lent.  A flood has prevented cattle from reaching the slaughterhouse.  No one should be eating beef during Lent except those with special dispensation for their health, but that seems to cover everyone.  A “sort of intestinal war between stomachs and consciences began.”  The stomachs are likely to win; among other things “there existed a state of intestinal flatulence in the population, brought on by fish and beans and other somewhat indigestible fare.”

I will pause to consider all the other fiction written in 1838, or published in 1871, containing such a sentence.  That did not take long.

Once cattle arrive at the slaughter house, the real action of the story, nine of its thirteen pages, can begin.  First forty-nine steers are dismembered, to great celebration and scavenging.  Maybe this would be a good place not to include a quotation.  The fiftieth and final animal is, by accident, a bull, who takes three pages to subdue.  A child is accidentally killed in a vivid and repulsive passage.

Now the butchers are worked up.  What horrors will they commit in the final four pages?  It helps at this point to know that the story was written as a protest against a specific dictator.  A civilian wanders by, an opponent of the regime, identifiable by his dress and beard and English saddle.  He is abducted, bullied, and murdered, although he may have willed himself to death to avoid torture:

“Poor devil, we wanted only to amuse ourselves with him, but he took things too seriously,” exclaimed the Judge, scowling tiger-like.

I should give some sort of sample of the writing.  The description of the bull is good: “snorting, casting reddish phosphorescent glances right and left.”  The bull is always on fire somehow.  It has escaped the slaughter house and nearly collided with a group of women:

It is said that one of the women voided herself on the spot, that another prayed ten Hail Mary’s in a few seconds, and that two others promised San Benito never to return to the damned corrals and to quit offal-collecting forever and anon.  However, it is not known whether they kept their promises.

Echeverría’s story stands at the beginning of Argentina’s Literature of Doom.  César Aira seems less peculiar measured against this particular forebear.  Those Latin American specialties, the brutal dictator novel like the recently translated Tyrant Banderas (1926) by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, or the bloody civil war novel like Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915), seem like logical outgrowths of “The Slaughter House.”   But I suppose it is the reverse that is true, that the later turmoil of Latin American history made Echeverría look like a literary prophet.

I read “The Slaughter House” in the valuable Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories (1997), tr. Angel Flores.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

I tried my best and what I got for it was a kick in the jaw - Benito Pérez Galdós and Torquemada

Are Spanish novels long?  The 19th century ones, I mean.  The Spanish novel seems to face the “Russian novel” problem:  the standard “great Spanish novels” are a behemoth, Fortunata and Jacinta (1887) by  Benito Pérez Galdós (850 pages in the Penguin Classics translation, although I have seen a 1,000 page Spanish) and La Regenta (1884-5) by Clarín (a slender 750 pages).  And since neither novel has the prestige of War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov they mostly go unread, as does 19th century Spanish literature.  I haven’t read them either!

In fact, I discover as I poke around, Spanish books are short.  Clarín mostly wrote short stories, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón is best known for a novella, Emilia Pardo Bazán’s The Manor of Ulloa (1886) is short, Juan Valera’s Pepita Jimenez (1874) is short.  The intimidating figure is Galdós, not just because his great masterpiece is so long but because his body of work is gargantuan, 77 novels including a stunning 46 volume series of historical novels.  Over twenty of his novels are available in English, so you cannot say people have not tried to find English-language readers for Galdós.  A couple of years ago, studying the shelves of a good university library, I was pleased to discover that his novels were mostly quite short.

Galdós, following Balzac, used recurring characters, the best known of whom is probably the Madrid money-lender Torquemada who graduated from a small part in Fortunata and Jacinta to a series of his own novels.  Dwight, The Common Reader, has read the Torquemada novels (1889+) and made them sound most appealing.  I just tried them out myself, via “Torquemada in the Flames” (found in Great Spanish Stories, tr. Willard Trask), which I believe is a shortened version of the already short novella that begins the series.

Oh, it is a horrifying tale.  Torquemada is cunning and venal, a mean-spirited materialist.  When his son is afflicted with meningitis, though, he tries to reform.  He has picked up the idea that he will be rewarded by God – that he can save his son – by good works, but he is not in the habit.  Thus, when he gives coins to mendicant he cannot help telling them how virtuous he is, “’because I am poor too, and more unfortunate than you are – if only you knew it.’”  When he meets a freezing beggar, he cannot sacrifice his cape – “’If only I had on my old cape instead of this new one’” – but he does go home, retrieve the old one and give it away, which should count as a good deed, yes?

Much of the pleasure of this savagely ironic story comes from Torquemada and his ferociously perverse behavior, and also from his speech.  Here he is how the new, merciful Torquemada responds to a plea for clemency from one of his tenants:

‘And who told you, you foulmouthed so-and-so, that I have come to squeeze you?  I’d like to see any of you ill-conditioned hags maintain that I have no humanity.  Just any of you dare to say it to my face…’

And here is the lesson he has learned at the end of the story:

‘And I answer you that I tried my best and what I got for it was a kick in the jaw.  All the mercy I have, they are welcome to bash in my skull with!’

Dwight suggests (see the end of the above link) a Fortunata and Jacinta readalong for October.  This October, the one coming up.  I’ll do it, although I will likely need an October-and-a-half to finish the book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The lyre went mute for want of content - but there will always be poetry! - abstract and concrete Bécquer

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer wrote stories as well as poems, the posthumous Leyendas (Legends).  I have read one of them, “Master Pérez the Organist” (1861), again in Great Spanish Stories (tr. Martin Nozick).  An obscure but great organist dies at the organ and then haunts it.  The story is a good knockoff of E. T. A. Hoffmann, and has some particularly good passages describing the music (“The organ exhaled a strange discordant sound, like a sob, and fell silent”) and some excellent Seville local color.  You can, in fact, visit the church – you can see the organ.  Just scroll down a bit past the “cuerpo incorrupto” of the nun who founded the convent.  Now there’s some Andalucian local color.

It is funny how little it matters that the Bécquer story is derivative.  The changes in locale and custom are sufficient to give it some interest, even if it were otherwise a pure copy of a Hoffmann tale.  Just moving from Berlin to Seville is an interesting change in the hands of a skilled writer.

I am less convinced that moving typical Romantic ideas from French or German into Spanish is similarly interesting.  Thus I suggested that the value of Bécquer’s poetry lies more in its intrinsic qualities than in its ideas, however much trouble this causes for a translator.  Bécquer seems to agree:

Do not say, Its treasure exhausted,
the lyre went mute for want of content:
it may be there’ll be no more poets,
but there will always be poetry!  (IV)

Translation can provide the narrative of a poem , if it has one, and can give us a good sense of the concerns of a poet, and poetic translation is usually good with imagery.  Bécquer’s poems are as stuffed with imagery as any poets, little of it especially original or surprising.  I can imagine him sacrificing an original image for an original sound.  He compares himself, his artistic self, in one poem to an “[a]rrow randomly shot,” a “gale-whipped leaf,” a wave and “light in trembling rings,” and in another his “inspiration” is like a hurricane or madness  or “a flying horse \ with no reins to guide it” or

Misshapen silhouettes
of impossible beings,
landscapes that appear
as if through tulle  (III)

which is pretty good, right, but also awfully fuzzy.  Those rings or circles of light, a recurring image, actually do strike me as original, but abstract.  But Bécquer’s aesthetic is abstract.  He is describing his poetry accurately.  I will not get a good look at those “impossible beings” but perhaps the sound and shadow of them will work on my imagination, as it did on a generation of Spanish-language poets who followed Bécquer.

A concrete setting forms at the end of the Rimas sequence* when the beloved woman dies and is entombed.  “The startled owls that pursued me” and “From a clock was heard the pendulum’s rhythmic beat” and

Pick-axe on shoulder
The gravedigger,
Faded into the distance.  (LXXIII)

Still, even these last poems, although set in a church and a crypt, also find the poet in “the silent world of ideas” – “I do not know if that visionary world lies within or outside us” (LXXV), about as succinct a summary of Romanticism as I know.  In the poems of Bécquer, more within than outside, although I wonder what he might have found if he had lived even a few years longer.

*  The  sequence Michael Smith provides, at least.  I am sticking with him and Collected Poems (Rimas) today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What is poetry? - singing along with Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

“Spanish poetry of the late seventeenth  century and of the eighteenth is not very interesting, and that of the early nineteenth contains nothing that was not done better  in France, in Britain, or in Italy,” or so say J. M. Cohen in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse (1988, p. xxxvi), and thus he skips from almost two hundred years from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (“the last considerable poet of the Spanish Golden Age”) to Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (“the greatest of Spain’s poets of the 19th century”).  What is the greatest etc. like?

What is poetry? You ask
as you fix your blue eyes on mine.
What is poetry!  And it’s you who ask me?
Poetry… it is you. 

Hmm.  Yuck!  What goo.  This is Michael Smith, not Cohen, in Collected Poems (Rimas) (Shearsman, 2007, p. 65).  The English is nothing, but the Spanish is something:

¿Qué es poésia?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¡Qué es poésia!  ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poésia… eres tú.

The sentiment is still trivial, but there is poetry here, particularly in the rhythm and the repeated vowel sounds.  That musical second line, for example, with its “i u i u i u,” resonating with the later repeated “tú.”  The rhymes and near-rhymes are unusual for Bécquer, but the mastery of assonance is not.

Although this poem does not seem to do all that much, it contains almost all of Bécquer’s subject matter.  He wrote love poems, expectant, joyous, anguished, and despondent, most of which also seem to be about poetry as much a woman.  He died young, having written poems for about a decade and leaving just one posthumous book, Rimas (1871).  The poems are from manuscript, so an editor can arrange them as he likes.  In the Collected Poems I am reading, a sort of story is formed in which poetry is replaced by (or turns into?) a woman who, sadly, dies, allowing the poet a full range of passionate poetic moods.

I find it hard not to mock, gently, lightly, lovingly, such a purely Romantic artist.  Another kind of reader, perhaps younger, may well take him more seriously.  He and I both take Bécquer’s vowels seriously (I am switching to Cohen’s prose translation):

Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y otra vez con el ala a sus cristales
     jugando llamarán;   

The black swallows will return to hang their nests on your balcony, and once more, as they sport, to knock with their wings against its window-panes,

pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha al contemplar,
aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres…
    ésas… ¡no volverán!

but those that stopped their flight to observe your beauty and my good fortune, those who learnt our names…  they…  will not return!

Two more stanzas follow with similar “Something (honeysuckles, words of love) will return, but the ones who were here when we were happy will not return."  The rhythm is that of a song, perhaps a flamenco; I in fact have a tune in mind and if you were here I could sing it for you.  Thus if “golondrinas” and “colgar” and “cristales” and “llamarán” do not rhyme, the singer can stretch the “a” sound as if they do.  I also recommend that the singer employ a dramatic pause (and, if dressed appropriately, a dramatic pose) in the middle of that last line – “ésas [pause, longing gaze into the distance, that flounce of the skirts the flamenco singers do] ¡no volverán!”

It is just a question of finding the right tune.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Prosaic uniformity and savorless realism - Alarcón's jolly Three-Cornered Hat

Spanish Literature Month continues at a blistering pace – here is one week, just one short week, of the effort.  So many books, and nothing from the 19th century, as is statistically all too likely.  Much of the century falls in the curious two hundred year canonical gap in Spanish literature.

Spain’s medieval and early modern literature rivals that of any European tradition, but something happened  in the mid-17th century – the standard explanation is “the Counter-Reformation” – that did not do in the production of literature as such, but, remembering that judgments like this are always retrospective, killed off the imaginative literature that people today want to read, canonical literature.  Please check my work in any history of Spanish literature – how quickly does the author want to get out of the dreary 18th century?

The drought lasted well into the 19th century, although once the rain started the result was a flood.  That is not such a good sentence but I did not want to mix my metaphors.  My point is that by the end of the century Spanish literature was alive and rich, in verse and prose, in Europe and America.

The Three-Cornered Hat (1874) by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón is at the head of the new tradition, a charming and funny novella about an ugly miller and his lovely wife  and the comic misunderstandings that result when a local official sets his sights on the wife.  Much of the plot depends on the ancient device where changing your clothes changes your identity so that whoever is wearing the big three-cornered hat is assumed to be the big man in charge, although Alarcón does cheat a bit – he critiques the old device while using it.  The result is a story that feels like a direct descendant of Cervantes and Lazarillo de Tormes, as if Alarcón had simply stepped across the intervening centuries.

Perhaps this is why Alarcón is so careful to place his story in history:  “The year is not precisely known; it is certain only that it was after 4 and before 8” (Ch. I) which puts it before the Napoleonic Wars devastate Spain, and before anyone thought they might, “as if, in the midst of all these novelties and upheavals, the Pyrenees had grown into another Great Wall of China.”  The story could well seem timeless, or at least nostalgically remote, without this context but Alarcón deliberately sets it on the eve of convulsive change.

The Three-Cornered Hat is essentially a story about the abuse of authority.  “[T]he good old times symbolized by the Three-Cornered Hat” (Ch. 36) were corrupt and ruinous for ordinary people, but happy times for the powerful:

Happy times, in which our land enjoyed quiet and peaceful possession of all the cobwebs, dust, moths, all the observances, beliefs, traditions, all the uses and abuses, sanctified by the ages!...  Happy times, I say, especially for the poets, who might find round every corner an interlude, a farce, a comedy, a drama, a mystery, or an epic, instead of this prosaic uniformity and savorless realism which came to us on the heels of the French Revolution!  Happy times indeed!  (Ch. II)

Little of The Three-Cornered Hat is written so sarcastically.  None of it is without savor.

I read The Three-Cornered Hat in Great Spanish Stories (1956, Modern Library), tr. Martin Armstrong.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A "too tired to write a post" post

I was going to write up something last night about how I was too tired to write anything, but I was too tired.  By Monday I will be rested and relaxed, or so I hope.

Travelers of a certain energetic type would be shocked and perhaps embarrassed by how little I did and saw in France.  Day trips shrunk to half days, rest days were spontaneously added to the schedule, the length of meals expanded to civilized lengths.  No Barcelona, no Carcassonne, no Montpellier, even though these marvels were only a few hours away.  Still, I managed to fill the time while barely leaving Roussillon.

The two themes, so to speak, of the trip were food and – well, food is always a theme.  I was particularly successful with cheese, chocolates and produce, moderately so with wine and restaurants.  If in Perpignan, do not miss the narrow but superb Don Jamon – do not click if bothered by lovingly photographed Spanish ham.

The second theme was an attempt to make some sense of medieval France, inspired by a brief stop on the way south in Chartres and an attempt or two to look at Chartres Cathedral, all under the misleading guidance of Henry Adams and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904).  Adams’s book, like its ancestor,  John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, moves far beyond the title edifices, discussing medieval French poetry, philosophy, and religion.  The book provides a strong misreading of the Middle Ages with Chartres as the primary text.

“Reading,” in the context of a cathedral, is just a metaphor, but in the case of Chartres a near literal one.  A couple thousand sculptural figures surround the entrances, and hundreds more are in the stained glass, all characters in stories, some of which I knew well and some that were utterly baffling.  The construction and history of the cathedral is yet another story.  Chartres is useful not just because it is a masterpiece, or an agglomeration of masterpieces, but because its story is, for a Gothic cathedral, unusually coherent.  The window that tells the story of The Song of Roland was hidden by renovation, so I will have to go back just for that.

Traveling, tourism, is like reading in this way – I read a complex book as preparation for the next reading, I visit a complex place to prepare for the next visit.  I was just getting somewhere, I think, when I have to leave, but next time I will be ready.  Or perhaps I will never return, never re-read, and the preparation is really for the next trip, the next book, or some trip or book in the distant future, one I have not yet imagined.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Walking beneath the stars - then all collapsed - Sergio de la Pava and Herman Melville

Tomorrow I go to France.  Back in a couple of weeks.  My attention has turned to sifting and sorting the books that will accompany me, judging them by weight per word and required concentration and disposability.  That tattered Lord Jim could stay in Europe, couldn’t it?  I wanted to take the Selected Writings of Paul Valéry, since I might visit his home town, but the book fails the Concentration Test.  Who am I kidding?  So it’s Trollope instead.

For example Sergio de la Pava's novel, A Naked Singularity, self-published in 2008, other-published a couple of months ago, is too heavy for travel, so I had to get through it's 670 pages before I left.  The book is excellent, a fine imperfect American mess in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, as is often mentioned, but also of Richard Russo and Chuck Pahlaniuk, less often mentioned because less prestigious.  A young public defender gets caught up in a variety of this and that, including a capital punishment appeal and a Tarantino-ish heist.  The book is all about the voice of this character.  The Magnificent Octopus has typed in many representative quotations accompanied by enthusiastic criticism - please, sample.

It has been a while since I read one of these books (five years, Pynchon’s Against the Day), these discursive rambles through whatever has been gnawing at its author (say the career of boxer Wilfred Benitez), stuffed with whatever amusing nonsense he has thought up (like a fresh fruit-themed luxury hotel).  One chapter is in the form of a court transcript, another is a children’s story in verse, another the correspondence between a lawyer and a prisoner of Death Row.  The latter contains a deft little turn, a change in the tone of the lawyer’s letters after he actually meets the prisoner, that is one of the most moving things in the book.  De la Pava, ya big showoff.  Anyone tried the empanadas recipe yet (pp.118-20)?

The granddaddy of this tradition is Moby-Dick, so what fun to discover that the villain, so to speak, of the book is an invincible, immortal giant whale.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

I guess that is Melville’s ending, or close to it, not De la Pava’s, although A Naked Singularity also ends in a collapse.  Each of the three parts of Singularity ends not with the sea but with stars, though, the word “stars.”  New York City is enjoying a blackout:

I looked up just in time to witness a celestial transfiguration.  The new terrestrial darkness allowed the heretofore invisible above to emerge, as the sky, now cleansed of all mortal light, became dotted with astral pinpoints.  I went out and wandered the streets; for the first time in that hyperkinetic place, walking beneath the stars.  (525)

The narrator is like “those old astronomers [who] were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight.”  That is Melville again.  Hard to stop quoting him.

I guess this is what will be floating atop the site until I come back.  Levi, let me know how many books I sold for you (my guess: 0).

Maybe  I will be able to check in sometime.  I heard somewhere that they have installed the internet in France.

Nobody write anything too interesting while I am away, please.

Monday, July 2, 2012

He is a great poet; in a future life you should really study him - Cees Noteboom's The Following Story

I see that I am late for Dutch Reading Month.  Iris already has a wrap up post!  I will try to be more punctual about Spanish Literature Month.  Great literature, though, is timeless, or so I have heard, so I will plunge forward.

I had the luck of coming across a book that complemented some earlier reading.  In Cees Noteboom’s The Following Story (1991) a Dutch travel writer finds himself magically transported to a Lisbon hotel room, the same one he once shared with a woman he loved: “they were still there, the vapid portrait of that overestimated seventeenth-century poet Camões, and the engraving of the great Lisbon earthquake with minute faceless creatures scattering in all directions to escape the toppling buildings” (19).  The narrator, Herman Mussert, is also a classicist – Ovid’s Metamorphoses is his “bible, one that really helps” (18) – so I understand his grotesque error.*

In more than one place Harold Bloom has argued that we read as a way to prepare for death.  The Following Story is the most literal novel on that subject that I have ever encountered.  The novel is almost entirely about literature (and death), even though the ordinary boundaries of life interfere with literature in all the usual ways.  Pessoa is invoked, as is Plato and, over and over, in some detail (“See Book XV, verses 60-64” (18)), Ovid, as the narrator undergoes a metamorphosis of his own.

A particularly ingenious scene near the end interweaves Mussert’s intimate knowledge of Ovid with the names and meaning of the constellations.  A scholar of Chinese poetry happens to be present, allowing Noteboom to sidestep the Western canon and Western constellations for a moment.  The Charioteer is transformed into the Pool of Heaven, as described, the Chinese professor tells us, by the poet Qu Yuan:

“One of our classics.  Earlier than your Ovid.”

He sounded apologetic.  (81)

The title of the post also comes from this character (p. 83).  It perhaps offers a solution to a common reader’s lament.

Tony, of the Reading List, recently wrote about the bad excuses some readers have cooked up for avoiding translations, a puzzle given the one irrefutable not excuse but reason for not reading a book in translation, or any book at all:  “I’m doing something else.”**  Noteboom’s novel fails two of Tony’s three arguments in favor of literature in translation, the instrumental reasons (cultural experience – Noteboom actually makes some subtle and amusing criticisms of the act of foreign travel! – and alternative perspectives), but it meets the third – it is a well-written novel.

Ina Rilke is the translator.

*  The overestimated sixteenth century poet!

**  The conversation was continued by Amanda at Simple Pastimes and by Jillian, who accuses me of making literature less popular and "read[ing] with ego rather than earnestness" – that last word is inaccurate, at least; I read with irony.