sábado, 30 de octubre de 2010

Old School

Old School (Vintage, 2003)
by Tobias Wolff
USA, 2003

With apologies to those of you tired about hearing about Madame Bovary already, I'm quite certain that the occasionally uninvolving Old School suffered from being read in such close proximity to Flaubert's absolutely riveting classic.  In addition, Wolff's fake memoir also suffers in comparison with Robert Walser's 1909 Jakob von Gunten, which I read and loved last year, and Robert Musil's 1906 The Confusions of Young Törless, which I often wished I were reading in place of Old School, in terms of that whole boarding school setting thing.  Mostly, though, I think it suffered because I didn't always buy the narrator's voice when he was talking about his school days and his formation as a Hemingway-loving teen writer troubled by his half-Jewish identity. That being said, I suppose this was an OK read overall.  Wolff's a fine craftsman with a knack for the unexpected gem of a line ("She had a soft fleshy prettiness like girls in silent films," on page 159, was one of my descriptive favorites), and a few of the chapters--particularly the two where the narrator talks about a plagiarism incident that gets him kicked out of school--sucked me in with the writing.  What a shame then that one of the few female characters in the novel, the ex-writer Susan Friedman, gets so little face time in this "memoir" given that she's a far more compelling creation than the male narrator who plagiarizes her story.  I think Wolff's work, which tends to play it a little safe from my perspective, could have used more of the Friedman character's energy and unpredictability.  (http://www.vintagebooks.com/)

Tobias Wolff

Old School was Sarah's October pick for the Wolves in Winter/Non-Structured Reading group (name change, and reading list for 2011, pending).  Next month, the ladies and I will be putting Emily's selection, Ricardas Gavelis' Vilnius Poker, to the test on or around the last Friday of the month.  Please join us if interested!

viernes, 29 de octubre de 2010

Balzac Loses a Book

Tuesday, 30 March [1875]
Paul Lacroix confirmed in conversation with me today what Gavarni had told me about Balzac's thriftiness in the expenditure of his sperm.  He was perfectly happy playing the love game up to the point of ejaculation, but he was unwilling to go any further.  Sperm for him was an emission of cerebral matter and as it were a waste of creative power; and after one unfortunate incident, in the course of which he had forgotten his theories, he arrived at Latouche's exclaiming: 'I lost a book this morning.'
(Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Pages from the Goncourt Journals [translated by Robert Baldick], New York: NYRB Classics, 2007, 215-216)
Unofficial coup d'envoi of my 2010-2011 French literature reading project!

jueves, 28 de octubre de 2010

Madame Bovary, troisième partie

Madame Bovary (GF Flammarion, 2006)
by Gustave Flaubert
France, 1857

"Madame Bovary itself neither praises adultery in order to condemn marriage nor attacks adultery in order to defend marriage.  It creates instead a drastically unstable social and ethical universe in which as fundamental an opposition as that between adultery and marriage threatens to become a distinction without a difference.  Emma's real tragedy is that little of substance differentiates her husband from her lovers, her ordinary reality from her imagined one.  Seeming opposites become deadly repetitions of one another, and the despised husband seems in the end to be the only one who loves her.  Not only does he keep an adoring vigil at her coffin while others sleep or are absent; he ends his life imitating hers as he establishes Emma as an undefiled romantic idol despite all evidence to the contrary."  --Dominick LaCapra, "Two Trials," 729, in Denis Hollier, ed., A New History of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

True story.  I was so shaken when I finished Madame Bovary the other night that I almost immediately e-mailed Frances thanking her for recommending the book but warning her that I might not have my emotions in check in time for this post.  A slight exaggeration, of course, but really, what a stupendous read!  In any event, the Dominick LaCapra quotation above (part of a short but incisive article dealing with the twin obscenity trials brought against Flaubert and Baudelaire in 1857) calmly touches on a couple of things I thought were key to the novel's success.  First, there's that whole business about the "unstable social and ethical universe" created by Flaubert.  This, in conjunction with a lack of moralizing in the novel, made the characterizations feel richer, more unpredictable, more lifelike to me.  Secondly, I think LaCapra is right on target in pointing out that the "real tragedy" in Madame Bovary isn't the fact that Emma feels trapped in an unfulfilling marriage but that Charles--for all his flaws as the despised husband--is also the one "true" love in Emma's life.  At the very least, this notion, just as much as the disturbing scene where the title character calmly ingests a mouthful of arsenic to achieve peace with the universe, is one of the things that really, really got to me as the novel wound down to its unforgiving end.

Madame Bovary rough draft

The unique qualities of Flaubert's EpiPen style prose and storytelling notwithstanding, I'm not sure he could have gotten under my skin with such a misanthropic tale about adultery and unrequited love on technique alone.  I think I finally sensed a hint of the soul behind the ruthless wordsmith.  That having been said, there's no denying that the writing did another number on me here.  I loved, for example, how the "moral" instability alluded to above also extended to the style of writing itself--for, like the scenes late in Part II where Emma's imagination or POV seemed to either merge with or actively be at war with nature by turns, the one in III, 8 where she's leaving Rodolphe's estate after he's rejected her plea for financial assistance seems to go beyond mere "realism":

"La nuit tombait, des corneilles volaient.

Il lui sembla tout à coup que des globules couleur de feu éclataient dans l'air comme des balles fulminantes en s'aplatissant, et tournaient, tournaient, pour aller se fondre dans la neige, entre les branches des arbres.  Au milieu de chacun d'eux, la figure de Rodolphe apparaissait.  Ils se multiplièrent, et ils se rapprochaient, la pénétraient; tout disparut.  Elle reconnut les lumières des maisons, qui rayonnaient de loin dans le brouillard" (388).

["Night was falling, rooks were flying overhead.

It seemed to her suddenly that little flame-colored globes were exploding in the air like bullets bursting and flattening, and spinning over and over, then melting on the snow, among the branches of the trees.  In the center of each, Rodolphe's face appeared.  They were multiplying, coming together, penetrating her; everything vanished.  She recognized the lights of the houses, shining from a distance through the mist" (Lydia Davis' translation, 278).]

In addition to these wonderful set-pieces, I was also impressed by Flaubert's often biting use of one-liners for dramatic "miniaturizations" and Tacitean summations of character.  Three in particular struck a chord with me:  "Ce furent trois jours pleins, exquis, splendides, une vraie lune de miel" ["They were three full, exquisite, splendid, days, a real honeymoon"] we read in III, 3, on the subject of one of Emma's and Léon's adulterous trysts (328 in Flaubert, 227 in Davis); "Mais le dénigrement de ceux que nous aimons toujours nous en détache quelque peu.  Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains" ["But vilifying those we love always detaches us from them a little.  We should not touch our idols: their gilding will remain on our hands"], we're warned in III, 6, after a lovers' quarrel (355, 250 in Davis); "Et il la regardait avec des yeux d'une tendresse comme elle n'en avait jamais vu" ["And he looked at her with a love in his eyes that she had never seen before"], we read in III, 8, finally encountering a scene where Charles is at last appreciated in a way by his spouse--on her deathbed (391, 281 in Davis).  Whilst I'm still not entirely sure what Flaubert's treatment of his characters reveals about his worldview as a person, I have to say that this quintessentially depressing novel of his maintained my interest down to the very last line (itself a master stroke of bleakness, by the way).  Génial!  (http://www.editions.flammarion.com/)

sábado, 23 de octubre de 2010

TBR by Country: France

While I'm not entirely sure I want to fill you all in on just how big a book hoarder I am, I've been toying with the idea of typing out a copy of my TBR list for ages.  So here are the French books currently in the collection waiting to be read, not counting the three I'm reading right now (Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Perec's A Void, and Proust's Swann's Way), library books, or the many novels I'm merely coveting at this point.  Since this may or may not be the last post of this kind here, I'll go ahead and let stats freaks and any other curious types who come across this know that French authors probably account for the second most books on my TBR list by country after the presumptive winner: Argentina.  In any event, feel free to let me know if there's anything good or bad you care to share about the following titles and/or whether you have a favorite country or countries represented within your own TBR list.  Always interested in hearing about stuff like that!
1) Anonymous.  Aucassin et Nicolette (GF Flammarion).
2) Anonymous.  Raoul de Cambrai (Le Livre de Poche).
3) Balzac, Honoré de.  Eugénie Grandet (Le Livre de Poche).
4) _____.  The Girl with the Golden Eyes (Melville House).
5) Baudelaire, Charles.  The Flowers of Evil [with parallel French text] (Oxford World's Classics) [partially read].
6) Bernard of Clairvaux.  On the Song of Songs I (Cistercian Publications) [partially read].
7) Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle.  La femme cachée (Folio).
8) _____.  The Pure and the Impure (NYRB Classics).
9) Flaubert, Gustave.  Un coeur simple (Le Livre de Poche).
10) Flori, Jean.  Chevaliers et chevalerie au moyen âge (Hachette Littératures).
11) _____.  La première croisade: L'Occident chrétien contre l'Islam (Éditions Complexe).
12) Gautier, Théophile.  My Fantoms (NYRB Classics) [partially read].
13) Gide, André.  Les caves du Vatican (Folio).
14) Goncourt, Edmond and Jules.  Pages from the Goncourt Journals (NYRB Classics).
15) Grimaud, Hélène.  Leçons particulières (Robert Laffont).
16) Huysmans, Joris-Karl.  Against Nature (À Rebours) (Penguin Classics) [reread].
17) Joinville, Jean de.  The Life of Saint Louis.  In Chronicles of the Crusades (Penguin Classics).
18) Kehew, Robert (ed.).  Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours (The University of Chicago Press).
19) Laclos, Choderlos de.  Les liaisons dangereuses (Hachette Classiques).
20) Leblanc, Maurice.  Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur (Le Livre de Poche).
21) Maupassant, Guy de.  Contes de la becasse (GF Flammarion).
22) _____.  Monsieur Parent et autres nouvelles (Folio Classique) [partially read].
23) Nerval, Gérard de.  Aurélia et Les Chimères (Le Livre de Poche).
24) Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past, Volume III: The Captive; The Fugitive; Time Regained (Vintage).
25) Rabelais, François.  Gargantua and Pantagruel (W.W. Norton) [partially read].
26) Radiguet, Raymond.  Count d'Orgel's Ball (NYRB Classics).
27) Roquebert, Michel. L'épopée cathare (Perrin/Privat).
28) Schwob, Marcel.  Vidas imaginarias (Longseller).
29) Soupault, Philippe.  Last Nights of Paris (Exact Change).
30) Stendhal.  Le Rouge et le Noir (GF Flammarion).
31) Yourcenar, Marguerite.  Nouvelles orientales (Gallimard).
32) Hollier, Denis (ed.).  A New History of French Literature (Harvard University Press).*

*Not all French authors here but whatever!

jueves, 21 de octubre de 2010

Madame Bovary, deuxième partie

Madame Bovary (GF Flammarion, 2006)
by Gustave Flaubert
France, 1857

"Ce qui me semble beau, ce que je voudrais faire, c'est un livre sur rien, un livre sans attache extérieure, qui se tiendrait de lui-même par la force interne de son style, comme la terre, sans être soutenue, se tient en l'air, un livre qui n'aurait presque pas de sujet, ou du moins où le sujet serait presque invisible, si cela se peut.  Les oeuvres les plus belles sont celles où il y a le moins de matière".

["What seems beautiful to me, what I would like to do, is a book about nothing, a book without external ties, that would hold itself together by the internal force of its style, like the earth, without being propped up, suspending itself in the air, a book which would have nearly no subject, or at least one where the subject would be nearly invisible, if that is possible.  The most beautiful works are those where there are the least amounts of subject matter."]

--Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, II, 345, as cited by Bernard Ajac in his introduction to the GF Flammarion edition of Madame Bovary, 20 [my translation].

As late as a third of the way into Madame Bovary, I was still admiring Flaubert's technique from a distance more than I was sinking my teeth into his story.  Provocative narrative point of view?  Check.  Credible insight into the emotional and psychological states of his characters?  Check.  Gripping reading?  Well, let me get back to you on that, I thought.  Yet somewhere between then and the end of Part II, the guy began to just work me over with regularity with his writing.  Here are a few of my favorite examples.  In Part II, Chapter 9, Emma finally succumbs to temptation with the cad Rodolphe.  Flaubert initially merely says that Emma "s'abandonna" (228) ["gave herself up to him" in Lydia Davis' translation (141)].  In the masterful paragraph that follows, however, he adds a tour de force of a descriptive passage linking Emma's interior world with the exterior or natural world:

"Le silence était partout; quelque chose de doux semblait sortir des arbres; elle sentait son coeur, dont les battements recommençaient, et le sang circuler dans sa chair comme un fleuve de lait.  Alors, elle entendit tout au loin, au-delà du bois, sur les autres collines, un cri vague et prolongé, une voix qui se traînait, et elle l'écoutait silencieusement, se mêlant comme une musique aux dernières vibrations de ses nerfs émus" (228).

["Silence was everywhere; something mild seemed to be coming forth from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk.  Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations of her tingling nerves" (Davis, 141).]

While I don't think it's necessary to pin down whether this is Emma's orgasm being portrayed as a form of out of body experience witnessed by her or if nature itself is having an orgasmic response on the character's behalf, that, my friends, is some attention-grabbing writing!

As astonishing as that scene is, note how ruthlessly Flaubert--the writer as hooded executioner--manages to bracket the big moment.  In Part II, Chapter 11, the clubfooted Hippolyte is about to have one of his legs amputated because of a botched operation performed by Charles at Emma's urging.  The narrator tells us that:

"Au milieu du silence qui emplissait le village, un cri déchirant traversa l'air.  Bovary devint pâle à s'évanouir.  Elle fronça les sourcils d'un geste nerveux, puis continua.  C'était pour lui, cependant, pour cet être, pour cet homme qui ne comprenait rien, qui ne sentait rien!  Car il était là, tout tranquillement, et sans même se douter que le ridicule de son nom allait désormais la salir comme lui.  Elle avait fait des efforts pour l'aimer, et elle s'était repentie en pleurant d'avoir cédé à un autre" (253).

["In the midst of the silence that hung over the village, a harrowing cry rang out through the air.  Bovary turned so white he seemed about to faint.  Her brows contracted in a nervous gesture, then she went on.  Yet it was for him, for this creature, for this man who understood nothing, who felt nothing!--for there he was, quite calm, not even suspecting that from now on, the ridicule attached to his name was going to soil her as well as him.  She had made efforts to love him, and she had repented in tears for having yielded to another" (Davis, 162).]

In the earlier scene, a cry of joy accompanies the moment where Emma yields her body to another for the first time.  In the latter scene, a cry of pain accompanies the moment where Emma finally gives her heart and soul away as well.  The narrative calls attention to the betrayal with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it shift between the protagonists' points of view right after the scream (first Bovary's and then his wife's) and from the fact that the quarreling Emma and Rodolphe are reunited a page later.  One senses that Emma's latest rejection of Charles is final.

Of course, Emma herself will be rejected by Rodolphe by letter before too long.  Rodolphe's letter-writing scene, which takes up the first half of chapter 13, is one of the most vicious things I've read all year. It's also more than a little bit funny given what we know about Emma's lover's "true nature."  Yet as flamboyantly meanspirited as the scene is, Flaubert manages to play off of it and even surpass it with an altogether different type of tone later in the chapter.  Note, for example, the build-up to the sequence where Emma is contemplating jumping off a balcony as a solution to feeling trapped and jilted:

"Le rayon lumineux qui montait d'en bas directement tirait vers l'abîme le poids de son corps.  Il lui semblait que le sol de la place oscillant s'élevait le long des murs, et que le plancher s'inclinait par le bout, à la manière d'un vaisseau qui tangue.  Elle se tenait tout au bord, presque suspendue, entourée d'un grand espace.  Le bleu du ciel l'envahissait, l'air circulait dans sa tête creuse, elle n'avait qu'à céder, qu'à se laisser prendre; et le ronflement du tour ne discontinuait pas, comme une voix furieuse qui l'appelait" (274).

["The ray of light that rose directly up to her from below was pulling the weight of her body down toward the abyss.  It seemed to her the ground in the village square was swaying back and forth and rising along the walls, and that the floor was tipping down at the end, like a vessel pitching.  She was standing right at the edge, almost suspended, surrounded by a great empty space.  The blue of the sky was coming into her, the air circulating inside her hollow skull, she had only to give in, to let herself be taken; and the whirring of the lathe never stopped, like a furious voice calling her" (Davis, 180).]

Considering that the very landscape of Yonville-l'Abbaye seems to be approaching Emma Bovary here, inviting the character to kill herself, this is absolutely chilling stuff.  It gets even more chilling when you stop to think about the parallels between Madame Bovary, suspended in space between life and death, and the book that's named after her, a work "suspending itself in the air" in Flaubert's aesthetic conception of the beautiful.  While I'm not entirely sure what the novelist's end game is yet or whether Madame Bovary could be considered "a book about nothing," suffice it to say that it's writing like this that makes up for Flaubert's somewhat "banal" theme.  Wow.  (http://www.editions.flammarion.com/)


Blogger extraordinaire Frances of Nonsuch Book is hosting the Madame Bovary readalong that I'm participating in.  Click here for her round-up of all readalong posts on Part II and/or here for my comments on Part I.

jueves, 14 de octubre de 2010

Madame Bovary, première partie

Madame Bovary (GF Flammarion, 2006)
by Gustave Flaubert
France, 1857

Messieurs, M. Gustave Flaubert est accusé devant vous d'avoir fait un mauvais livre, d'avoir, dans ce livre, outragé la morale publique et la religion.  M. Gustave Flaubert est auprès de moi; il affirme devant vous qu'il a fait un livre honnête; il affirme devant vous que la pensée de son livre, depuis la première ligne jusqu'à la dernière, est un pensèe morale, religieuse, et que, si elle n'était pas dénaturée (nous avon vu pendants quelques instants ce que peut un grand talent pour dénaturer un pensée), elle serait (et il reviendra tout à l'heure) pour vous ce qu'elle a été déjà pour les lecteurs du livre, une pensée éminemment morale et religieuse pouvant se traduire par ces mots: l'excitation à la vertu par l'horreur du vice.

Messieurs, M. Gustave Flaubert is before you charged with having written an evil book, and of having, within this book, outraged public morality and religion.  M. Gustave Flaubert is at my side.  He asserts before you that he has written an honest book; he declares before you that the conception of his book, from the first line until the last, is moral and religious in nature and that, if its meaning had not been distorted (a few moments ago, we saw what might be considered a great talent for distorting a meaning), the book would be (and it will instantly appear to be) for you what it has already been for its readers, namely an eminently moral and religious one able to be expressed in these terms: the excitation to virtue by the horrors of vice.
(M. Sénard, from the Actes du procès against Flaubert [my translation, excuse the clumsiness], p. 461)

Whatever you make of Flaubert's lawyer's defense here, I think it's fair to say that the first part of Madame Bovary only hints at the "outrages" against morality to come in the rest of the novel.  It's a prologue in nature, but one with enough provocations to suggest why such an "honest" work might have gotten under so many people's skin over the years.  From the outset, for example, it's clear that Flaubert intends to toy both with his readers' expectations and their sympathies.  Madame Bovary is introduced, not with a biography of the title character, but with the back story of the man who will eventually become her cuckolded husband.  Then there's that whole matter of how, as if complementing this narrative misdirection, the novelist introduces the reader to the young Emma Rouault: she's actually a fellow reader in love with the escape provided by literature.  As the first part of the novel winds its way down to the unmercifully jarring conclusion juxtaposing the burning of a wedding bouquet with the news that Emma Bovary has become pregnant, the reader will be forgiven if he or she doesn't know where their sympathies lie.  With Charles?  Emma?  With both?  Neither?  Complicating matters, it's also not clear at this point where the narrator's sympathies lie in this novel subtitled Provincial Ways.  Introducing himself as a schoolmate of the young Charles Bovary who helped welcome the country bumpkin to his new school by razzing him, the storyteller quickly disappears into an omniscient narrator role to tell the story of the Bovarys' dysfunctional marriage.  Should the tale be seen as a further mockery of Charles by a provincial who knew him?  Hard to say at the moment.  In any event, I'm enjoying the novel up to now--more for its psychology than its prose, truth be told--and thank Book Temptress Frances both for my giveaway copy of the new Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary (Viking, 2010, below) and for the opportunity to read it in such fine company with her readalong group.  More commentaries, details and opinions over at Frances' blog.  (http://www.editions.flammarion.com/)

A quick, possibly self-indulgent language note...
Since I haven't read anything book-length in French in ages, I was happy to see that Flaubert's 19th century grammar isn't as complicated as I'd feared.  Vocabulary, now that's another story!  While the vocab isn't necessarily "complicated" either, there are so many words I have to look up...that I feel like Charbovari!  Charbovari! with his remedial Latin.
Will continue trying to keep up with Madame Bovary in the original language.  Have been reading that first and then following it with up Lydia Davis' swanky new English translation.  The pace of the readalong is about to pick up substantially, though, so we'll see how the plan goes.
In the meantime, the secret word for the day is redingote.  A very useful word if you ever want to compliment somebody's frock-coat en français.

sábado, 9 de octubre de 2010

Luna caliente

Luna caliente (Ediciones Letra Buena, 1992)
por Mempo Giardinelli
México, 1983

Aunque me gustaría leer Santo oficio de la memoria, de Giardinelli, un día de estos, decidé de empezar mi lectura del argentino con esta novela corta suya.  Escrita en el exilio en México durante los últimos años de la dictadura militar argentina, Luna caliente es una híbrida rara que mezcla aspectos de la novela negra con comentario político y rasgos de la literatura fantástica.  Desgraciadamente, no sé si esta combinación fue un éxito.  A su mejor, el relato se parece a una película de los Hermanos Coen en cuanto a su manejo de la violencia y el humor negro.  Aunque fue difícil preocuparme por la suerte de un protagonista que era un asesino y un violador, la verdad es que me gustaron el desarrollo de la trama y la velocidad de la narración.  También me gustó el comentario social.  Trajo a la cárcel por haber cometido un asesinato de que los policías saben que él está completamente culpable, Ramiro Bernárdez todavía está ofrecido un pacto: confesar y sale derecho porque el asunto será "arreglado".  Con un país en guerra contra los subversivos, el asesinato de un borracho por un hombre con un futuro político posible es nada más que una incomonidad importuna.  A su peor, el relato se parece a una peli de M. Night Shyamalan con su "desenlace sorprendente" y algunos momentos de cursilería cinemática.  Además, su retrato de un supuesto inocente que en realidad era un monstruo me pareció un poco torpe a veces.  En resumen, una lectura razonablemente divertida pero una decepción a la vez.  (Ediciones Letra Buena [la tapa arriba pertenece a otra edición de la novela])

Sultry Moon (Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998)
by Mempo Giardinelli [translated from the Spanish by Patricia J. Duncan]
Mexico, 1983

Although the book I'd really like to read by Giardinelli is his much raved about 500-page Santo oficio de la memoria, I decided to start my reading relationship with the Argentine with this slender little 111-page novella of his.  Written in exile in Mexico during the last years of the Argentinean military dictatorship, Sultry Moon [Luna caliente] is kind of a weird hybrid that takes a high adrenaline crime novel and tries to jazz it up with some political commentary and a touch of fantastic literature at the end. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that this blend really worked for me.  At its best, the tale sort of resembles a Coen Brothers movie in its handling of violence and black humor.  Loved the pacing and the unfolding of the plot--even though it was tough to care about a protagonist who was both a killer and a rapist.  Also dug the social commentary.  Brought in front of the police for a murder they're sure he committed, Ramiro Bernárdez is offered to have the matter "fixed" if he will only confess.  With the country at war against subversives, you see, the murder of a drunk by someone with a potential political future is merely a messy inconvenience.  At its worst, the tale sort of resembles an M. Night Shyamalan flick with its "surprise ending" and its moments of cinematic cheesiness.  Also thought the depiction of an apparent innocent who in reality's a monster was a little heavy-handed, but maybe that's just me.  In other words, a reasonably entertaining read but kind of a letdown at one and the same time.  (http://www.lalrp.org/)

Mempo Giardinelli

miércoles, 6 de octubre de 2010

The Emigrants

The Emigrants [Die Ausgewanderten] (New Directions, 1997)
by W.G. Sebald [translated from the German by Michael Hulse]
Germany, 1992

"Emigrants, as is well known, tend to seek out their own kind."
(The Emigrants, 67)

At the risk of alienating two to three of my four to five regular readers, I have to admit that I wasn't blown away by my first encounter with Sebald.  Not entirely anyway.  I enjoyed The Emigrants, I admired certain aspects of it tremendously, and yet something about the novelist's distant tone just didn't connect with me.  Is it fair for a reader to criticize an author for the lack of chemistry between the two of them?  While I try and figure out a better way to say what I mean, let's start with the basics: The Emigrants is a series of four apparently straightforward emigrant narratives loosely connected by an unnamed narrator, a Nabokovian butterfly collector, and the shadow of the Shoah.  At once a meditation on memory and a disquisition on just how troublesome some memories can be, it's written as a species of fictive memoir by a first-person narrator who may or may not be intended to stand in for Sebald himself.  While these rescued stories are liberally punctuated with black and white photographs that lend the work the documentary feel of a family album, there are enough references to faux-documentary German cinema (Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), the dream world, madness, and memory-related trauma invoked to remind you that the narrative's carefully-crafted "reality" isn't quite the same as yours and mine.  That being said, one of the more startling things about the novel is how effectively it riffs on that sense of temporal dislocation and loss.  For while the stories about The Emigrants' four main characters certainly seem to evoke the harsh realities lived by untold millions of displaced 20th-century men and women, the narrator himself seems happy to populate his work with both the living and the dead--the recurring image of a Nabokovian butterfly collector and Nabokov's own autobiographical Speak, Memory being the intertextual totems of choice.  More a near-masterpiece than a masterpiece to me given my occasional disconnect with the authorial voice, this lyrical, provocative, and yet oddly dispassionate effort still has me intrigued about reading much more Sebald down the road.  (http://www.ndpublishing.com/)

W.G. Sebald

"The rest of the time I was looking for Cosmo and Ambros night and day.  Now and then I thought I saw them disappear into an entry or a lift or turn a street corner.  Or else I really did see them, taking tea out in the courtyard, or in the hall leafing through the latest papers, which were brought early every morning at breakneck speed from Paris to Deauville by Gabriel the chauffeur.  They were silent, as the dead usually are when they appear in our dreams, and seemed somewhat downcast and dejected.  Generally, in fact, they behaved as if their altered condition, so to speak, were a terrible family secret not to be revealed under any circumstances.  If I approached them, they dissolved before my very eyes, leaving behind them nothing but the vacant space they had occupied.  Whenever I caught sight of them, I contented myself with observing them from a distance.  Wherever I happened upon them it was as if they constituted a point of stillness in the ceaseless bustle."
(The Emigrants [translated by Michael Hulse], 122-123)

viernes, 1 de octubre de 2010

Upcoming Shared Read: Georges Perec's "A Void"

While I'm sure you're all super busy with various end of the year reading projects and whatnot, I hope I can entice a few of you to join assorted other rabid Georges Perec fans and me in a shared read of his 1969 novel A Void later this month.  A Void, originally published as La disparition in France way back when, is sometimes described as a "metaphysical whodunit" that's either a venture into noir or a parody of the same; however, many of you will know of it instead as that circa 300-page novel somehow written without the use of the letter "e."  Sound a little too experimental for you?  Not to worry.  First, take a look at the snapshot of author and cat below: Perec might have been a genius, but he was one of those fun-loving geniuses if you catch my drift.  Next, take a look at some of the write-ups from the shared read of Perec's Life A User's Manual that a bunch of us undertook in April.  To a person, wildly ecstatic raves.  While I can't promise you that A Void will be anywhere near as vachement formidable as Life A User's Manual, this Wikipedia entry here makes me think that it should be every bit as satisfying to you, the discriminating reader, as Mockingjay and Tender Morsels seem to be to less discriminating readers.  Are you in?

Georges Perec, l'homme de l'heure

To give everybody time to read and then post at their leisure, "discussions" are targeted to take place on participating blogs somewhere between October 29th (a Friday) and November 7th (a Sunday): in other words, two full weekends.  Post whenever you like, though.

Who else is in or probably in