domingo, 30 de octubre de 2011

The Crime of Father Amaro

The Crime of Father Amaro [O crime do Padre Amaro] (New Directions, 2003)
by Eça de Queirós [translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa]
Portugal, 1880

Since I saw the "steamy" Mexican film adaptation of The Crime of Father Amaro long before I ever got around to reading Eça de Queirós' outrageous Portuguese original, I was pleased to discover how fresh and humorous a novel this is despite the devastation that lies in wait for several of its key characters. Seriously, whoever would have thought that a self-destructive love affair between a provincial parish priest and one of his beautiful parishioners could prove so amusing?  Perhaps because Eça was more interested in exposing the hypocrisy of his times than in delivering a traditional morality tale, few people or things are spared when it comes to skewering his victims.  Early on, for example, the narrator introduces us to an odd devotional work said to be "both devout and titillating" and "breathing mystical lust"; not content with a full paragraph of such descriptions, he then gleefully blurts out, "it is the canonical Spanish fly!" (88). Elsewhere, malicious Tacitean slander is the weapon of choice used to eviscerate one unfortunate character's reputation ("He always looked rather grimy, and his sallow, effeminate face and debauched eyes spoke of ancient, infamous vices" [144]).  Given the novel's focus on sham piety, the characters naturally badmouth each other as well: Canon Dias' joking description of his sister as "a veritable Grand Inquisitor in skirts," while undoubtedly deserved after an excess of religious zeal has led the bitter old maid to burn the personal items once belonging to an unfairly excommunicated romantic rival of Father Amaro's, is entirely typical of the more playful sorts of attacks (269).  Aside from the humorous touches and the anti-clerical satire, I just greatly enjoyed Eça de Quierós as a stylist.  Here are two almost Proustian soundbites.  On the Marquesa de Alegros, one of Father Amaro's patrons: "Her two daughters, having been brought up both to fear Heaven and to care deeply about Fashion, were at once excessively devout and terribly chic, speaking with equal fervour about Christian humility and the latest clothes from Brussels.  A journalist of the time said of them: 'Every day they worry about what dress they should wear when it comes to their turn to enter Paradise'" (24).  On a lecherous city administrator: "And with that, he turned on his heel and went out onto the balcony in his office--the same balcony on which, every day, between eleven and three, he defiled Teles' wife with his gaze, all the while twirling his blonde moustaches and smoothing his blue cravat" (257).  Having talked up Eça's comedic and descriptive flourishes for long enough, I should probably note that the illicit love affair between Father Amaro and Amélia, while well-depicted throughout in terms of the characters' sexual tension, "courtship" and jealousy and startlingly situated against the social backdrop of a Portugal in transition (i.e. the Church and monarchy vs. secularism and republicanism), does take a predictable turn for the worse near the end.  While I'm not sure that the novelist really could have written his way out of that 19th century ending, in one sense it doesn't matter at all because he entertainingly keeps you off guard throughout most of the novel--and virtually all of Portuguese society gets blasted by the final page.  In short, a fine and unexpectedly edgy read.  (

Eça de Queirós

Having wanted to read The Crime of Father Amaro for at least two or three years but never quite able to get my act together for it on my own, I'd like to thank Amateur Reader (Tom) for the push provided by his Portuguese Literature Challenge that's now in session over at Wuthering Expectations.  Tom, Litlove of Tales from the Reading Room, and possibly one or two others will also be writing about The Crime of Father Amaro on their own blogs sometime soon (update: Litlove's review can now be found here).  Until then, here's one more Eça de Queirós broadside for you from pages 123-124 of the Margaret Jull Costa New Directions translation:

What did it matter to him that he had the right to open or close the doors of Heaven?  What he wanted was the ancient right to open or close the doors of dungeons!  He wanted clerks and Amélias to tremble at the mere shadow cast by his cassock.  He would have liked to have been a priest in the old Church, when he would have enjoyed the advantages brought by the power of denunciation and by the kind of terror that an executioner inspires, and there, in that town, under the jurisdiction of his Cathedral, he would have made all those who aspired to the joys that were forbidden to him tremble at the thought of excruciating punishments, and, thinking of João Eduardo and Amélia, he regretted not being able to bring back the bonfires of the Inquisition!  In the grip of a fury provoked by thwarted passion, this inoffensive young man spent hours nursing grandiose ambitions of Catholic tyranny, for there is always a moment when even the most stupid priest is filled by the spirit of the Church in one of its two phases, that of mystical renunciation or that of world domination; every subdeacon at one time or another believes himself capable of being either a saint or a Pope; there is not a single seminarian who has not, albeit for an instant, aspired longingly to that cave in the desert in which St Jerome, looking up at the starry sky, felt Grace flow into his heart like an abundant river of milk; and even the potbellied parish priest who, at close of day, sits on his balcony probing the hole in his tooth with a toothpick or, with a paternal air, slowly sips his cup of coffee, even he carries within him the barely perceptible remnants of a Grand Inquisitor.

viernes, 28 de octubre de 2011

Bolaño Infra. 1975-1977: los años que inspiraron "Los detectives salvajes"

Bolaño Infra.  1975-1977: Los años que inspiraron Los detectives salvajes (RiL Editores, 2010)
by Montserrat Madariaga Caro
Chile, 2010

A great little find for fans (and maybe even future fans) of a certain 1998 Roberto Bolaño novel, Bolaño Infra.  1975-1977: Los años que inspiraron Los detectives salvajes [Infra Bolaño, 1975-1977: The Years That Inspired The Savage Detectives] provides a short but thoroughly satisfying account of Bolaño's mid-twenties in Mexico during the time when the then aspiring poet was co-founding the Infrarrealist movement and raising hell with a gang of bohemian friends and sympathizers who would later become immortalized within the pages of The Savage Detectives as the "visceral realists."  While part of the fun in reading Bolaño Infra is getting to hear something from and learn something about many of the real life infras who inspired various Savage Detectives characters, an unexpected bonus for me was the faded snapshot of Mexico City's mid-1970s underground art and literature scene that eventually took shape as a result of Chilean journalist Montserrat Madariaga Caro's interviews and research.  For example, there are at least two wonderful anecdotes about how the infrarrealists targeted poet Octavio Paz for art terrorist attacks on multiple occasions for the crime of representing  establishment culture.  In the first such account,  José Vicente Anaya tells how "en una de esas reuniones donde discutían sus ataques, se le ocurrió ir con pistolas de salva a un recital de Octavio Paz para disparar y gritar: ¡la poesía ha muerto!  Pero la idea se desechó por un posible infarto del señor Paz" ["at one of those meetings where they planned their attacks, it occured to them to go to an Octavio Paz recital with starter pistols to shoot and to shout: 'Poetry is dead!'  But the idea was scrapped because of the possibility of Paz having a heart attack" (67).  In the second, Paz is remembered reading a poem of his called "La vista, el tacto" ["Sight, Touch"] that  plays with repetition of the word luz [light].  An unknown infra  begins to interrupt with shouts of "mucha luz, cuanta luz, demasiada luz" ["a lot of light, how much light, too much light"] to which Paz gets up, asks to see who's mocking him, and demands: "Qué es lo que tiene usted contra mí?" ["What is it that you have against me?"].  To which the infra replies: "Un millón de cosas" ["A million things"] before being ejected from the ironically titled "Encuentro de generaciones" ["Generational Encounter"] held at the UNAM bookstore (133). Great story!  In addition, there are several memorable word portraits of the young Bolaño.  Mexican novelist Juan Villoro, not an infra but a contemporary who became a friend of Bolaño's after meeting him in 1976, describes the Chilean wearing Groucho Marx glasses with hair "agitado por un viento imaginario que conservaría dos décadas después" ["agitated by an imaginary breeze that would still be preserved two decades later"].  "Imposible olvidar sus locuras, el entusiasmo, el disparate, su vitalidad para provocar conversaciones increíbles...  Roberto siempre fue muy exagerado y muy elocuente; sus elogios se disparaban hasta el cielo y sus críticas te llevaban al séptimo círculo del infierno, donde están los asesinos" ["Impossible to forget his craziness, enthusiasm, absurdity, his vitality for provoking incredible conversations...  Roberto was always very exaggerated and very eloquent; he'd praise things to high heaven, but his criticisms would take you down to the seventh circle of hell, where the killers are"] (101).  In one of the nicest surprises of all, an entire chapter is dedicated to the little-known Mexican poet Mario Santiago, the longtime best friend of Bolaño's who was the model for the Ulises Lima character in The Savage Detectives.  While details of the Bolaño-Santiago friendship were surprisingly affecting to learn about, one of the heads-up things that the author does with the material is to contrast how the ex-partners in crime approached life and literature after their infrarrealism days.  Bolaño, according to some who knew him in his pre-fame Mexico City youth, was a kind of sellout to the cause--a guy who wanted to be recognized as a writer so much that he turned his back on poetry and entered the world of the commercial novelist instead.  The eccentric Santiago, on the other hand, chose to live his life as a poem, circulating his poetry among friends and writing poems on apartment walls and other stray surfaces.  Which path was more honest?  To her credit, Madariaga Caro doesn't render a verdict on the question, instead leaving us with this:  "A fin de cuentas, los dos próceres del Infrarrealismo tenían la escritura tatuada en la sien.  Ambos vivieron intensamente y codificaron esas sensaciones en poemas, cuentos y novelas.  Murieron jóvenes.  Murieron sabiéndose deteriorados, como consumidos por sus letras pero aún así escribiéndolas" ["When all's said and done, the two leaders of Infrarrealism had writing tattooed on the brain.  Both lived intensely and codified those sensations in poems, short stories and novels.  They died young.  They died knowing themselves deteriorated, as if consumed by their literature but still writing it"] (124).  And this on what Bolaño hoped to achieve with his portrait of Mexico in The Savage Detectives: "Conoció a quienes hacen arte para poder vivir bien, y a los que viven mal para poder hacer arte; en consecuencia, aprendió la naturaleza dual de las cosas y concluyó que 'México es un país tremendamente vital, pese a que es el país donde, paradójicamente, la muerte está más presente.  Tal vez solo así, siendo tan vital, puede tener a la muerte tan presente'" ["He knew those who create art in order to live well and those who live poorly in order to create art.  As a consequence, he learned the dual nature of things and concluded that 'Mexico is a tremendously vital country in spite of the fact that it's the country where, paradoxically, death is most present.  Maybe only like that, being so alive, can it have death so present'"] (140).  An unexpectedly inspiring feat of research and one that's even more of a treasure trove for the fan on account of the "Primer manifiesto del movimiento infrarrealista" ["First Manifesto of the Infrarrealist Movement"] and some Bolaño-Santiago correspondence tacked on at the end.  (

Photo originally published in Pájaro de calor, ocho poetas infrarrealistas, 1976.
Top: Margarita XX, Mario Santiago, José Rosas Ribeyro, Roberto Bolaño, José Vicente Anaya.  Bottom: Rubén Medina, Dina XX, Ramón Méndez, Guadalupe Ochoa, Ramón Méndez.

Montserrat Madariaga Caro

martes, 25 de octubre de 2011

An Un-Review: La boda de Hitler y María Antonieta en el infierno

Just so you know, I've been wanting to read more of that crackpot J.R. Wilcock's oeuvre ever since a reread of his "Llorenç Riber" mini-pseudobiography last month reminded me of how devilishly entertaining most of his La sinagoga de los iconoclastas [The Temple of Iconoclasts] was for me a few years back.  So imagine my delight when, in aimlessly trolling around the internet last night, I discovered that the still as yet unseen by me El templo etrusco [The Etruscan Temple] that I'd requested for pick-up at the library today comes with this utterly genius descriptive blurb on the back of the book: "Wilcock despliega una vez más su destreza narrativa con una prosa de elegante terrorismo verbal, cuya gran precisión no nos ahorra detalles sádicos, y aun atroces, pero tampoco atisbos de una bellezza indómita" ["Wilcock displays his narrative skill once again with a prose of elegant verbal terrorism, the great precision of which does not spare us sadistic and even inhuman details nor inklings of an untamed beauty"].  "Elegant verbal terrorism"?  That, my friends, is a description of a book I want to read--and will soon.  However, the Wilcock title that I really, really want to read now is the one pictured above that I just found out about even later last night. La boda de Hitler y María Antonieta en el infierno [The Wedding of Hitler and Marie Antoinette in Hell], which sounds like one of the spurious works that appear at the end of Wilcock fan Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas, is a book written in collaboration with one Francesco Fantasia and only published after Wilcock's death.  What is it about?  Duh.  However, I love the sound of this thing as described by Guillermo Piro in his Página/12 non-un-review of the 2003 Argentinean edition:

La organización del libro recuerda un poco una famosa escena de Pierrot le fou de Godard, en la que Pierrot-Belmondo, al comienzo del film, se pasea entre la mayoría silenciosa invitada a una fiesta, simplemente escuchando las conversaciones que se suceden a su paso (conversaciones ridículas, en las que todos hablan enunciando slogans publicitarios).  En la boda...  los visitantes del infierno registran las conversaciones que tienen lugar entre los habitantes del infierno mientras se realizan los preparativos para la gran boda entre Hitler y María Antonieta.  Pero María Antonieta duda: Hitler la desea, es digno de ella, pero también Garibaldi cumple con todos los requisitos para poseerla. Y ella duda.  Hay un modo de resolver el asunto; una carrera.  El primero que llegue será aceptado; el perdedor deberá desaparecer inexorablemente de su vida.

[The book's organization is somewhat reminiscent of a famous scene from Godard's Pierrot le fou in which Belmondo's Pierrot, at the beginning of the film, strolls among the silent majority of guests invited to a party, overhearing the conversations that take place in his wake (ridiculous conversations in which the people that speak do so in advertising slogans).  In The Wedding..., the visitors register the conversations that take place among hell's inhabitants while the preparations are being made for the great wedding between Hitler and Marie Antoinette.  However, Marie Antoinette gets cold feet: Hitler desires her, Hitler is worthy of her, but Garibaldi also meets all the requisites for possessing her.  There's a way to resolve the matter: a race.  The first to arrive will win her, but the loser will need to inexorably disappear from her life.]
La boda de Hitler y María Antonieta en el infierno was published by Emecé in Argentina in 2003 after originally appearing in Italian as Le nozze di Hitler e Maria Antonietta nell'inferno.  Man, would I love to get my mitts on a copy of it.  How about you?

sábado, 22 de octubre de 2011

Borges oral

Borges oral (Biblioteca Borges, 2008)
por Jorge Luis Borges
Argentina, 1979

En mayo y junio de 1978, Jorge Luis Borges fue invitado dar una serie de cinco clases a la Universidad de Belgrano en Buenos Aires.  Cada viernes el escritor elegiría un tema particularmente importante para él --"El libro", "La inmortalidad", "Emanuel Swedenborg", "El cuento policial", "El tiempo"-- y, como resultado de la publicación de las conferencias en Borges oral, los lectores de hoy en día pueden entender cómo sería asistir a un curso dado por el profesor Borges.  Pues, ¿cómo sería tener Borges como profe?  La clase sobre "El libro" nos da un buen ejemplo de un acercamiento aparentemente sencillo pero que hace reflexionar.  Después de decir que le gustaría escribir una historia del libro sobre "las diversas valoraciones que el libro ha recibido" al estilo de la Decadencia de Occidente de Spengler, Borges empieza por explicar que los antiguos "veían en el libro un sucedáneo de la palabra oral" (10).  Avanzando al asunto de cómo el Oriente introdujo el concepto de libros sagrados a los griegos y romanos, Borges entonces lleva su historia del libro hasta la modernidad al describir cómo muchos bibliófilos reales tienen interés en el libro como objeto físico y no sólo por su contenido.  Dado que esta forma particular del culto de libro no interesa a Borges para nada, él llama la atención a las ironías de cosas como la idea de que los países han elegido obras nacionales paradigmáticas "que no se parecen demasiado a ellos": "Cervantes es un hombre contemporáneo de la Inquisición, pero es tolerante, es un hombre que no tiene ni las virtudes ni los vicios españoles", dice de Don Quijote y España; "Nosotros hubiéramos podido elegir el Facundo de Sarmiento...pero no...hemos elegido como libro la crónica de un desertor, hemos elegido el Martín Fierro, que si bien merece ser elegido como libro, ¿cómo pensar que nuestra historia está representada por un desertor de la conquista del desierto?", pregunta de la épica gaucha y Argentina (17-18).  En otra parte, Borges cita a pensadores como Montaigne y Emerson en apoyo de su creencia que la lectura debe ser una forma de felicidad sobre todo.  Algunas de sus conclusiones son sorprendentes: "Por eso considero que un escritor como Joyce ha fracasdo esencialmente, porque su obra requiere un esfuerzo" (19).  Otras no son sorprendentes: "Les debemos tanto a las letras.  Yo he tratado más de releer que de leer, creo que releer es más importante que leer, salvo que para releer se necsita haber leído.  Yo tengo ese culto de libro" (21).  Qué lástima que sea la hora de acostarme porque hubiera querido hablar un poco más acerca de las otras conferencias en esta tapa de 99 páginas. (
In May and June of 1978, Jorge Luis Borges was invited to give a series of five lectures at the Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires.  Each Friday the writer would choose a topic particularly dear to him for one reason or another--"The Book," "Immortality," "Emanuel Swedenborg," "The Detective Story," "Time"--and as a result of the publication of the lectures in the unfortunately titled Borges oral, today's readers can now know what it'd be like to attend a course given by Professor Borges.  So what was it like to have Borges as a prof?  Borges' plainspoken but thought-provoking lecture on "The Book" gives us a pretty good idea.  After stating that he's long wanted to write a history on the reception of the book modeled on Spengler's book talk in The Decline of the West, Borges begins by explaining how the ancients regarded the book as a poor substitute for the spoken word.  Moving on to the matter of how the East introduced the concept of sacred books to the Greeks and the Romans, Borges then brings his history of the book up to modern times by noting how the bibliophiles of today often place as much importance on the book as a physical object as on the content of the book itself.  Since this particular cult of the book doesn't interest Borges at all, he draws attention instead to ironies like how frequently the paradigmatic works of national literatures are in conflict with the values of the nations that they're said to represent: : "Cervantes is a man contemporaneous with the Inquisition, but he's tolerant, a man who has neither Spanish virtues nor vices" ["Cervantes es un hombre contemporáneo de la Inquisición, pero es tolerante, es un hombre que no tiene ni las virtudes ni los vicios españoles"]) he says of Don Quixote and Spain; "We would have been able to choose Sarmiento's Facundo" as our national book, "but no...[instead] we chose the account of a deserter, we've chosen Martín Fierro, which even though it certainly deserves selection on its merits as a book, what are we to think of our history being represented by a deserter of the conquest of the desert?" ["Nosotros hubiéramos podido elegir el Facundo de Sarmiento...pero no...hemos elegido el Martín Fierro, que si bien merece ser elegido como libro, ¿cómo pensar que nuestra historia está representada por un desertor de la conquista del desierto?"] he asks about the gaucho epic and Argentina (18).  Elsewhere, Borges quotes thinkers like Montaigne and Emerson in support of his belief that reading should deliver a state of "happiness" above all else.  Some of his conclusions may surprise you: "Because of that, I think that a writer like Joyce has essentially failed because his work requires a real effort" ["Por eso considero que un escritor como Joyce ha fracasdo esencialmente, porque su obra requiere un esfuerzo"] (19).  Others may not: "We owe so much to literature.  I've tried to reread more than to read, I believe that rereading is more important than reading, except that in order to reread one needs to have read.  That's my cult of the book" ("Les debemos tanto a las letras.  Yo he tratado más de releer que de leer, creo que releer es más importante que leer, salvo que para releer se necesita haber leído.  Yo tengo ese culto del libro"] (21).  Too bad it's time to go to bed because I would have liked to talk a little more about a couple of the other lectures in this 99-page appetizer. (


viernes, 21 de octubre de 2011

The Savage Detectives Group Read

There's still plenty of time left before 2012, of course, but what the hell: to help put an exclamation point on the end of the 2011 Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge and to help usher in the new year in style, Rise of the Bolaño challenge and in lieu of a field guide and I will be hosting a group read of The Savage Detectives (original title: Los detectives salvajes) in January 2012.  For those not very familiar with the work, The Savage Detectives is the 1998 novel/pistol to the head of magical realism that provided the commercial and critical breakthrough to set the Chilean Bolaño on his path as the most important writer to come out of Latin America since Gabriel García Márquez.  Many Bolaño fans consider it Bolaño's best work--yes, even better than his posthumous, much more critically-lauded 2666--and while I won't get into that argument here, I can see why some people might feel that way given its livewire writing style, narrative experimentation, and scabrous humor.  In any event, I hope many of you will consider reading or rereading the novel with Rise and me in what will be the second time around for both of us and the first time I've picked up this personal favorite of mine since those wild and wooly pre-blogging "formative years" of yore--just let us know if you want to read along and then join us for discussion with participating fellow bloggers during the last weekend in January (Friday, 1/27 thru Sunday, 1/29) or thereabouts.  P.S. Emily, Frances, Nicole, Tom, others--always the charmer, I'm personally inviting you/calling you out to an under-600 pages de-humiliation party.  What do you say?

Savage (and non-savage) Readers
Rise of in lieu of a field guide
Amateur Reader (Tom) of Wuthering Expectations
Amy of The House of the Seven Tails
Anthony of Time's Flow Stemmed
Becky of Page Turners
Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza
Bettina of Liburuak
Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat
Claire of kiss a cloud
Col of Col Reads
Emily of Evening All Afternoon
Frances of Nonsuch Book
Gavin of Page247
Jeremy of READIN
Mel u. of The Reading Life
Nicole of bibliographing
Sarah of A Rat in the Book Pile
Sarah of what we have here is a failure to communicate
Scott of seraillon
Séamus of Vapour Trails
Selena of luxe hours
Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog

viernes, 14 de octubre de 2011

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables (The Modern Library, 2001)
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
USA, 1851

If we can agree that the short story's like the equivalent of a 45 RPM single, the novella's the equivalent of a 12" EP, and the novel's the equivalent of an album, CD, or whatever large data storage file the kids of today are listening to their tinny, overproduced, uninteresting dance music on, then Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables is very much like that mediocre second album put out by a once-great band that wowed you with their debut LP.  What happened?  While I can't blame Hawthorne for electing not to come out with The Scarlet Letter II as the follow-up release to his smash hit, I'm not sure that this wildly uneven "ghost story"/"romance" of his was really the right medium for the morality tale about the Pyncheon family curse he chose to deliver.  For starters, even in his preface he's rather heavyhanded about his didactic aims: "Many writers lay very great stress upon some definite moral purpose, at which they profess to aim their works.  Not to be deficient in this particular, the Author has provided himself with a moral;--the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief;--and he would feel it a singular gratification if this romance might effectively convince mankind (or, indeed, any one man) of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms" (4).  Whatever you make of an author telling you what his story's about before you even get to the story, to my disappointment I found much of the narrative that follows just as clunky and programmatic in tone.  Maybe I don't get the guy's alleged sense of humor anymore, but his exposition-heavy passages made me grit my teeth with frequency.  Oftentimes striking descriptions shared the stage with awkward, clumsy and flat out mystifying ones like this one: "The evil of these departed years would naturally have sprung up again, in such rank weeds (symbolic of the transmitted vices of society) as are always prone to root themselves about human dwellings" (76).  Finally, the cardboard cutout characters were a joke, especially in light of the fact that 1851 was also the same year that New England's other newest hit maker gave us the unforgettable trio of Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab.  Despite almost giving up on the book about halfway through, though, I'm basically glad I didn't because there's an absolutely fantastic chapter near the end where Hawthorne departs from his mostly boring storytelling style with a night-long vigil at the side of a key character who has just died under mysterious circumstances.  The mocking way "the Author" chides and admonishes the deceased character for over a dozen pages is a sight to behold, and for one unbelievably compelling chapter at least I felt like I was in the presence of something electric and special and "classic."  Too bad then, with apologies to our dear Hawthorne-loving friend Frances, that so much of the rest of The House of the Seven Gables is as tame and as cloying as any major label power ballad act from the 1980s only without the big hair! (

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The House of the Seven Gables was read as part of a group read for R.I.P. VI.
Posts by hosts Frances of Nonsuch Book and Audrey of books as food can be found here (F) and here (A).

jueves, 13 de octubre de 2011

Borges & Bioy Casares Draw Up a List of Lifelike Characters for Your Reading Delectation or at Least Mine

Although I was thinking about letting a couple of more days go by before plundering Bioy Casares' Borges diary for yet another almost completely readymade post, its literary shop talk is just too good not to share.  I hope you get a kick out of this.  The date: Sunday, January 15, 1956.  The setting: Borges' house, where Bioy Casares has gone in search of his friend and collaborator and finds that some sort of a "women's meeting" is in session.  The set-up: Bioy Casares has just penned a review of L.P. Hartley's 1955 A Perfect Woman in which he makes the claim, cited in a footnote but only touched on in the actual diary, that "Los personajes de Hartley no tienen la sólida realidad de algunos de Balzac, de Don Quijote, de la Luisa del Primo Basilio, de la Sanseverina de Stendhal, pero siempre son verdaderos" ["Hartley's characters don't have the solid reality of some of Balzac's characters, of Don Quixote, of Luisa from Cousin Basilio, of Stendhal's Duchess of Sanseverina, but they are always true"].  This critique naturally leads to a discussion with Borges of various writers' strengths and weaknesses at developing characters, and after some back and forth on Samuel Butler and Dostoevsky and Maupassant, the following list of "personajes verosímiles" [credible, plausible or what I have hopefully not too controversially translated as "lifelike" characters] emerges:

Pinkerton, de The Wrecker; el padre de The House with the Green Shutters de Douglas; el zapatero de Lament for a Maker; la heroína del Primo Basilio; la Sanseverina de La Chartreuse de Parme y Madame de Rénal de Le Rouge et le Noir; el doctor indio de A Passage to India y el bengalí que dice: "Suppose you prosecute" del "Cuento más hermoso del mundo"; don Quijote; Hamlet; Schomberg de Victory; Shylock; acaso el rey Lear (no Macbeth); Babbitt; Roy Richmond de The Adventures of Harry Richmond de Meredith; Watson y no Sherlock Holmes; los personajes de Maupassant; Martín Fierro; Grandet y Eugénie; le père Goriot; M. de Charlus; personajes de Shaw (el poeta y el marido, de Candida; Mrs. Dubedat de The Doctor's Dilemma); Jesús; el conde Fosco y el tío paralítico de The Lady in White; según mi padre, Félicité de "Un coeur simple" de Flaubert y la mujer que hay en El crimen del Padre Amaro.

[Pinkerton from The Wrecker; the father from Douglas' The House with the Green Shutters; the shoemaker from Lament for a Maker; Cousin Basilio's heroine; the Duchess of Sanseverina from La Chartreuse de Parme and Madame de Rénal from Le Rouge et le Noir; the Indian doctor from A Passage to India and the Bengali who says "Suppose you prosecute" from "The Finest Story in the World"; Don Quixote; Hamlet; Victory's Schomberg; Shylock; perhaps King Lear (not Macbeth); Babbitt; Roy Richmond from Meredith's The Adventures of Harry Richmond; Watson and not Sherlock Holmes; Maupassant's characters; Martín Fierro; Grandet and Eugénie; le père Goriot; M. de Charlus; Shaw's characters (Candida's poet and husband, Mrs. Dubedat from The Doctor's Dilemma); Jesus; Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle from The Lady in White [sic]; according to my father, Félicité from Flaubert's Un coeur simple and the woman that's in The Crime of Father Amaro.]

Perhaps inspired by that unexpected Jesus-Count Fosco segueway above, Borges and Bioy Casares then move on to the subject of "real characters who received their reality from books" ["personajes reales pero que recibieron realidad de libros"] like Dr. Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whom the diary writer, obviously on a first-name basis with the philosopher, amusingly refers to only as "Jean-Jacques").  However, Bioy Casares then concludes, "muy pronto encontramos que la realidad parece venir, sobre todo, de que sabemos que fueron reales, y que no es ecuánime comparar personajes históricos con personajes ficticios" ["very soon we ran into the problem that their 'reality' seems to come, above all, from the fact that we knew they were real, and that it's not fair to compare historical characters with fictional ones"].  Discussion on lifelike characters over, it's back to business as usual for Borges and Bioy Casares for the diary entry mundanely ends: "Escribimos unos párrafos de nuestro cuento" ["We wrote a few paragraphs for our short story"].
Today's list comes courtesy of the as yet untranslated into English Borges by Adolfo Bioy Casares.  Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 2006, 154-155.

martes, 11 de octubre de 2011

Bioy Casares and Borges on Eça de Queirós

In a nod to Tom (né Amateur Reader) and his current Portuguese Literature Challenge being held over at Wuthering Expectations and the fact that I'll soon finally be reading Eça de Queirós' The Crime of Father Amaro as a result of said challenge's call to reading arms, here's a snippet of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges on the high-strung Eça de Queirós lifted from Bioy Casares' smashing Borges diary pictured above:

Martes, 14 de junio [1955]
Hablamos de Eça de Queiroz; decimos que desearíamos que hubiera más libros de Eça; que todo lo que escribía era agradable; que era muy superior a sus maestros, a Anatole France y aun a Flaubert.  Borges tiene un instante de duda, cuando menciono a Flaubert; luego dice que Madame Bovary es un libro mucho más pobre que El primo Basilio.  Hablamos de Proust...

[We talked about Eça de Queirós; we said that we wished there were more of Eça's books; that everything he wrote was enjoyable; that he was far superior to his "masters," superior to Anatole France and superior even to Flaubert.  Borges has a moment of doubt when I mention Flaubert; then he says that Madame Bovary is a much lesser work than Cousin Basilio.  We talked about Proust...]
(Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges, Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 2006, 133) 
Proust not being Portuguese, the follow-up anecdote in the sequence had to be pruned from this post.  Tsk, tsk.  However, even with something like 1,500 pages still to go, I can still assure you that Bioy Casares' diary is filled with juicy literary goodness of this nature as well as the delicious personal dirt that I was hoping to find--as in the story about the crazy ex-flame of Borges' who used to boast of being a big Don Quixote fan but would then qualify it with comments like "pero el verdadero, no el que todos leen" ["but the real one--not the one that everybody reads"] (55)!

sábado, 8 de octubre de 2011

Tiempo de silencio

Tiempo de silencio (Crítica, 2000)
por Luis Martín-Santos
España, 1962

A pesar de su fama como uno de los mejores libros españoles del siglo XX, hay que reconocer que el asunto argumental de Tiempo de silencio es poco prometedor como una diversión: un médico, falsamente acusado de ser culpable de la muerte de una joven durante un aborto ilegal, sufre las consecuencias éticas y legales como resultado de su supuesta complicidad.  Sin obstante, vaya sorpresa descubrir que la novela, como si escrita con la ayuda de tinta corrosiva y ojos de rayos x, sea tan deslumbrante como un retrato de Madrid a finales de los años cuarenta.  Me gustó enormemente.  Aunque todo el mundo habla de la influencia joyceana y/o piobarojiana en la obra de Martín-Santos, por mi parte veo rastros de Francisco de Quevedo en su fervor lingüístico y su debilidad por el tono delincuentemente elevado.  En la página 40, por ejemplo, se nota que la llegada del médico Pedro y su ayudante Amador a las chabolas en las afueras de Madrid, adónde se han ido en busca de algunos ratones de laboratorio que se han robado desde su centro de investigación dedicado al estudio del cáncer hereditario, se describe con una pura mirada burlona quevediana: "¡Allí estaban las chabolas!  Sobre un pequeño montículo en que concluía la carretera derruida, Amador se había alzado --como muchos siglos antes Moisés sobre un monte más alto-- y señalaba con ademán solemne y con el estallido de la sonrisa de sus belfos gloriosos el vallizuelo escondido entre dos montañas altivas, una de escombrera y cascote, de ya vieja y expoliada basura ciudadana la otra (de la que la busca de los indígenas colindantes había extraído toda sustancia aprovechable valiosa o nutritiva) en el que florecían, pegados los unos a los otros, los soberbios alcázares de la miseria".  Dada que esta descripción de las chabolas implícitamente critica a la España  franquista, véamos otro ejemplo ácido desde la misma secuencia altisonante (41): "¡De qué maravilloso modo allí quedaba patente la capacidad para la improvisación y la original fuerza constructiva del hombre ibero!  ¡Cómo los valores espirituales que otros pueblos nos envidian eran palpablemente demostrados en la manera como de la nada y del detritus toda una armoniosa ciudad había surgido a impulsos de su soplo vivificador!  ¡Qué conmovedor espectáculo, fuente de noble orgullo para sus compatriotas, componía el vallizuelo totalmente cubierto de una proliferante materia gárrula de vida, destellante de colores que no sólo nada tenía que envidiar, sino que incluso superaba las perfectas creaciones  --en el fondo monótonas y carentes de gracia-- de las especies más inteligentes: las hormigas, las laboriosas abejas, el castor norteamericano!"  A veces mencionado como un representante de la llamada novela social española, para mí Tiempo de silencio es un libro tan estilísticamente delirante y sui generis que no puede ser clasificado como una obra representativa.  Por ejemplo, no hay capítulos dentro de la obra.  Varios personajes "narran" en sus propios monólogos interiores, y otras escenas se narran en la tercera persona omnisciente.  El lenguaje emplea la jerga médica y el habla de los pobres y los ricos madrileños además de neologismos cultos y palabras alegremente latinizadas.  Es una novela novedosa y, al fin y al cabo, divertida pero también llena del sentimiento trágico de la vida según las palabras de otro escritor vasco famoso.  Pedro, caminando en las calles de Madrid, explica todo en este pensamiento suyo que se encuentra en la página 58 del librazo calidoscópico-y-escrito-con-cariño de Martín-Santos: "Cervantes.  Cervantes.  ¿Puede realmente haber existido en semejante pueblo, en tal ciudad como ésta, en tales calles insignificantes y vulgares un hombre que tuviera esa visión de lo humano, esa creencia en la libertad, esa melancolía desengañada tan lejana de todo heroísmo como de toda exageración, de todo fanatismo como de toda certeza?  ¿Puede haber respirado este aire tan excesivamente limpio y haber sido conciente como su obra indica de la naturaleza de la sociedad en la que se veía obligado a cobrar impuestos, matar turcos, perder manos, solicitar favores, poblar cárceles y escribir un libro que únicamente había de hacer reír?  ¿Por qué hubo de hacer reír el hombre que más melancólicamente haya llevado una cabeza serena sobre unos hombros vencidos?"  (

Luis Martín-Santos (1924-1964)

Luis Martín-Santos' 1962 novel Tiempo de silencio, a staple on 20th century Spanish graduate reading lists and apparently not without reason, can be found in English translation as Time of Silence as published by Columbia University Press as recently as 1989 (translator: George Leeson).  Highly, highly recommended for anyone interested in seeing what great stuff was going on in peninsular Spanish literature during the Boom decade made famous by Latin American authors.

martes, 4 de octubre de 2011

Marcel Schwob's "Bloody Blanche" & "Los señores Burke y Hare: Asesinos" (Peril of the Short Story for R.I.P. VI)

"Bloody Blanche" ["Blanche la sanglante"] & "Los señores Burke y Hare: Asesinos" ["MM. Burke et Hare, assassins"]
by Marcel Schwob [translated from the French by Chris Baldick and Marcos Mayer]
France, 1892 & 1896

With people like our good friend Jill so easily grossed out by the playful medieval love poetry of Juan Ruiz, I'm not sure what she or anybody else would have to say about French decadent/Ubu Roi dedicatee Marcel Schwob's truly revolting "Bloody Blanche."  A reimagining of the fairy tale as an Oldboy-style revenge fantasy, this gruesome four-page short story's only real purpose seems to be to put its 10-year old title character--both the object and the agent of almost all of the story's violence--in situations where rivers of blood soil her tender young flesh and clothing.  Creepy (and not really good creepy if you ask me!) but maybe something to get excited about for fans of the "genre: murder" narrative tradition as one website I came across this weekend laconically put it.  After "Bloody Blanche"'s perverse red-on-white excesses, "Los señores Burke y Hare: Asesinos" ["Burke and Hare, Assassins"], a fictionalized biography of the real-life serial killers who terrorized Scotland in the 1820s, almost qualifies as wholesome family entertainment in comparison.  In any event, I really enjoyed Schwob's arch, surprisingly humorous approach to the material here. For example, after comparing William Burke to a character in The Thousand and One Nights on account of the two men's shared propensity for enjoying storytelling and killing others as the only outlets for their "sensuality," Schowb then devilishly lavishes praise on Burke for his "originalidad anglosajona" ["Anglo-Saxon originality"] in coming up with the more beneficial endgame for his "errabunda imaginación de celta" ["roving Celtic imagination"]: while the fictional slave merely carved up his victims after his crimes, Burke, a much more forward-thinking man, sold his victims' bodies to science for use on the dissection table (277-278).  Elsewhere, in what will have to serve as the final words on this piece, Schwob teasingly turns his sights on the art of biography-writing itself when he explains why he'd rather leave Burke and Hare "en medio de su nimbo de gloria" ["in the middle of their halo of glory"] than spell out how the criminals met their end:  "¿Por qué destruir un efecto artístico tan hermoso llevándolos lánguidamente hasta el final de su carrera y revelando sus debilidades y sus decepciones?  Solo hay que verlos allí, con su máscara en la mano, vagando en las noches de niebla"] ["Why destroy such a beautiful artistic effect leading them listlessly along down to the end of their career and disclosing their weaknesses and disappointments?  Far better to picture them still out there, masks in hand, wandering around in the fog-shrouded nights"] (285).

"Bloody Blanche" appears in Chris Baldick, ed.  The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 245-248.  "Los señores Burke y Hare: Asesinos" is the last of 22 bios to appear in the Spanish version of Schwob's Vies imaginaires as translated by Marcos Mayer under the title Vidas imaginarias.  Buenos Aires: Longseller, 2005, 275-285.  By the way, here's a link that I just found to the original "MM. Burke et Hare, assassins" in French.  Enjoy!