Thursday, October 15, 2020

Felipe Alfau's Locos: A Comedy of Gestures - making the butterflies dance

When I was first learning to root around in literature, Vintage International was the publisher with the spines that caught my attention.  They were, at the time, the American home of Vladimir Nabokov, Günter Grass, Yukio Mishima, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Mann.  Also, for some reason, E. M. Forster and The Good Soldier, but in general they helped me get some sense of international Modernism.  Lots of interesting things going on out there. I guess they pulled in William Faulkner later, since I only have earlier editions of his books.

Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures (Farrar & Rinehart 1936, Dalkey Archive 1988, Vintage 1990) is one of the books that caught my attention by its company in the line.  It is a perfect fit, a tricky, playful, meta-fiction, with stories about, for example, a man who wants to become a fictional character and enlists the help of Alfau, the author, and another about a woman who is so in love with Death that she not only spends her day going to funerals but occasionally dies, you know, once in a while.  It is not all fantasy of the supernatural sort, though, as in “The Wallet,” about the time the power went out in Madrid during a police convention, so that the criminals were bolder than ever and the police, spending “all their efforts and time upon discussing matters of regulation, discipline and now and then how to improve the methods of hunting criminals” that they had “neither the time nor energy” to stop crime (p. 78).

The stories occasionally have footnotes, always at points where either the author or the characters lose control of the narrative:

(The voice of Carmen was heard from the next room smothered in manly laughter.) 1


1  The reader may disregard this interruption of two characters whom I had not intended for this story, but who are endeavoring to complicate matters on the stage by making noise in the wings.

In this case the footnote is a clue to or intrusion by the other level of the book, where the collection of stories are in fact a novel, with characters recurring across the story, often with different names so it is not clear that they are almost all related.  All of the characters are introduced in the first story, patrons of Locos, the bar that supplies the book’s title.  One character is present only in the form of “a little Chinese figure made of porcelain” with a “butterfly on his shoulder” (8-9.  I can see that the story, looking at it now, is full of clues or hints or jokes about what happens later in the book.  Chinelato’s dance of the butterflies, that is a lovely episode.

For the reader who likes this sort of thing, this is great fun, and for the reader who does not I suppose great tedium.  Mary McCarthy reviewed the novel in 1936, and returned to it over fifty years later for its rediscovery.  “Alfau, or his book, was evidently my fatal type, which I would again meet in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and more than once in Italo Calvino” (“Afterword,” 201).

This Spanish novel by a Spanish writer was, surprisingly, written in English and first published in the United States, where Alfau was an immigrant who wrote for Spanish-language newspaper and did commercial translation.  The Vintage edition of Locos was successful enough that an unpublished novel by Alfau, Chromos, written in the 1940s, appeared in 1990.  I remember it as quite good, but it has been thirty years since I read it.  Locos has stood up well.  Maybe someone can re-discover Alfau again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull - “Who is he, anyhow?”

John Gunther’s memoir Death Be Not Proud (1949), the account of his teenage son’s illness and death from a brain tumor, was one of the small number of actual books assigned by my high school, long long ago, but not so long that a memoir from 1949 did not seem just a bit antique.  Not that I remember it well.  It was earnest, instructive, sad. 

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull (1937) is a different kind of critter.  Karinthy, in his late forties when he becomes ill, was a comic writer, famous enough in Hungary that his operation was covered in Budapest newspapers.  He has a sense of humor about his illness, a great help in writing a book about it, and presumably in living through it.  And he writes the book himself, so it has a happy ending, for a while, at least.

A true Austro-Hungarian, however the borders have changed, Karinthy spends the first three pages sitting in a café, goofing off, doing the crossword.

And at that very moment the trains started…  Three times I raised my head, and it was only when the fourth train stated that I realized I was suffering from an hallucination.  (“The Invisible Train,” 12-13, tr. Vernon Duckworth Barker)

The interesting thing, from a literary and philosophical perspective, about a brain disease is the change in sensory perception.  We have enough trouble understanding what is around us when our senses work the way we are used to, much less when the brain starts playing tricks.  The subjective / objective split becomes intense.

The climax of the book is Karinthy’s operation, when he is under (only!) local anesthetic, adding another layer of weirdness, and recovery.  Time shifts and is compressed, recurring dreams replace reality, particularly the one described in the titles of Chapter 24, “Half a Dog Running to Telleborg,” in which Karinthy is sure he is half of a dog that has been cut in half by one of the invisible trains first heard in Chapter 1.

This part of the book gets pretty weird.

The following pages came before my eyes like a sequence from a film.  Try as I may, I cannot say for certain whether I has this experience during the operation itself or during my feverish dreams of the next few days.  My excursion in Time (which I shall describe shortly) may have begun at that moment, and is perhaps causing me to place in this chapter a series of pictures which should belong to the next…  In that film, the following sequence appears next, and it is therefore here that I shall include it.  (241)

It is a little apologia for Modernist fiction.  It is the older writers who were wrong, just putting one event after another.

The disease memoir is a well-formed genre now, and the film that most of A Journey Round My Skull resembles, not the weirdness of the operation but the earlier part, the series of symptoms, doctors, and diagnoses, is the last third of Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario (1993), the brilliant “Doctors” sequence, in which Moretti bravely recreates his own maddening journey through the Italian medical system.

In the middle of the operation, Karinthy interrupts himself with chapter titled “Addis Ababa.”  He checks in on people back in Budapest, his son (“who was now free to do as he liked, was probably enjoying himself,” 227), his friends, strangers reading about him in the newspaper:

At the morgue in the Szvetenay-ucca the corpses were lying peacefully in their zinc cases.  The only sound came from the dripping of ice as it melted under them.  Some of them wore an expression of indifference, and some one of surprise.  ON every face, there was an expression of some kind that had no meaning, as it had no cause.  An attendant had sat down on the doorstep to eat a hunch of bacon.  His companion was reading to him from a newspaper.  When he came to the title of my operation report the attendant cut himself another slice of bacon.

“Who is he, anyhow?” he asked, in a bored tone.  (236-7)

Meanwhile, the Italians conquer Ethiopia.  Disease memoirs are a form of wisdom literature.