miércoles, 23 de noviembre de 2011

The Duel

The Duel [Der Zweikampf] (Melville House, 2011)
by Heinrich von Kleist [translated from the German by Annie Janusch]
Germany, 1810

Apparently I need to deepen my acquaintance with the smash hits of German literature.  Superb long short story/short novella which, in addition to providing an easy way to pad one's reading statistics for the year, dares to investigate the question of whether God's will is at all fathomable to mere mortals.  That in itself would be unexceptional, of course, but even godless bloggers will have to admire Kleist's audaciousness in advancing his theme--spinning a spare page-turner of a tale in which a duel pitting one Count Jakob Rotbart, a fourteenth century ladies' man accused of killing his brother the duke but who has a seemingly airtight alibi predicated on the claim that he was otherwise busy seducing an aristocratic woman on the night in question, against Sir Friedrich von Trota, the murdered duke's chamberlain and a valiant defender of the disgraced Lady Littegarde von Auerstein's honor after her denial of Rotbart's claims goes unbelieved even by her immediate family in the wake of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, will reveal God's "infallible verdict" in a trial by combat that's binding by law.  That the answers provided by the duel can be seen to reflect poorly on God's judgement, man's interpretation of same, the value of honor, innocence, true justice, and mercy, or any and all of the above is just one example of Kleist's slippery winning ways, but I won't dwell on the primal ambiguities since I'm led to believe that most bloggers want only simple solace and maybe a costume drama/retro vibe outta their goddamn historical fictions.  While there's little of those things here, on an entirely unrelated note I'm tickled by the fact that the 19th century icon Kleist, at least in the promo photo below, is probably the first author to be featured on this blog who could ever be mistaken for a band member in one of the mid-1980s incarnations of the Fall or the Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain.  Yes! (www.mhpbooks.com)

Heinrich von Kleist

sábado, 19 de noviembre de 2011

Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend [Doktor Faustus.  Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde] (Vintage International, 1999)
by Thomas Mann [translated from the German by John E. Woods]
USA, 1947

Doctor Faustus, a German novel written in sunny southern California exile but with the grim presence of World War II serving as the aging Mann's strumpet muse, is a sort of unholy trinity: part intellectual pseudo-biography exploring the link between creativity and madness, part Faust rewrite involving a composer who may have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of uninterrupted artistic greatness, part political allegory of Germany's rise and fall in the period comprising the two world wars.  How does one manage to tell such a tale?  In the hands of narrator Dr. Serenus Zeitblom, Ph.D., a lifelong friend of the composer Adrian Leverkühn, the answer seems simple enough: a biography/memoir.  It's clear from the outset, though, that this won't just be any ordinary biography as the scholarly Zeitblom here moves from a childhood reminiscence about carefree kids eating berries in the invigorating country air to drawing careful attention to the way that art and fate fought it out in Leverkühn's later life:

I am moved to look back not out of nostalgia, but for his sake and at the thought of his fate, which ordained that he ascend from that valley of innocence to inhospitable, indeed terrifying heights.  His was an artist's life; and because it was granted to me, an ordinary man, to view it from so close-up, all the feelings of my soul for human life and fate have coalesced around this exceptional form of human existence.  For me, thanks to my friendship with Adrian, the artist's life functions as the paradigm for how fate shapes all our lives, as the classic example of how we are deeply moved by what we call becoming, development, destiny--and it probably is so in reality, too.  For although his whole life long the artist may remain nearer, if not to say, more faithful to his childhood than the man who specializes in practical reality, although one can say that, unlike the latter, he abides in the dreamlike, purely human, and playful state of the child, nevertheless the artist's journey from those pristine early years to the late, unforeseen stages of his development is endlessly longer, wilder, stranger--and more disturbing for those who watch--than that of the everyday person, for whom the thought that he, too, was once a child is cause for not half so many tears...  I urgently request the reader, by the way, to credit what I have said here with such feeling to my authorial account and not to believe it represents Leverkühn's thoughts.  I am an old-fashioned man, stuck in certain romantic views dear to me, among which is the heightened drama of an antithesis between the artist and the bourgeois (27-28).

I've quoted from this passage at length both because it provides a representative sample of the narrator's voice and a measure of the gripping, philosophical way aesthetics and inspiration are engaged with as a matter of course in this work.  Leverkühn's life as a man of genius separates him from the pack artistically and socially, but his good friend Serenus is aware of the price that he's had to pay as the result of a life devoted to his music.  Is the tradeoff worth it to advance his craft?  While fellow Doctor Faustus readers will have to judge for themselves, Mann ups the metaphysical ante in Chapter XXV when the narrator introduces a "secret manuscript" bearing "Adrian's unmediated voice" (237).  The subject?  A purported dialogue between the composer and the Devil in which extravagant claims are debated at a feverish pitch that may anticipate the title character's looming mental illness and subsequent breakdown: "The artist is the brother of the felon and the madman" (252).  "What is art today?  A pilgrimage upon a road of peas" (254).  "Parody.  It might be merry if in its aristocratic nihilism it were not so very woebegone" (257).  "Psychology--merciful God, you still hold with that?  It is but a poor, bourgeois, nineteenth century thing!" (264).

Although the shaken Zeitblom--perhaps himself an admirer of that "poor, bourgeois, nineteenth century thing" in his role as a middle class traditionalist/scholar trying to understand the human psyche--resumes his narrator role for the rest of the work, his biography is increasingly marked by the way Leverkühn's downfall-in-progress mirrors Germany's turbulent war years.  Confronted with his old friend's guilt over a war caused by German aggression, for example, Leverkühn manically opines: "Germany has broad shoulders.  And who would deny that such a real breakthrough is worth what the meek world calls a crime!"  (325)  Later, while working on the score for an apocalyptic work to be performed under the title of The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, the obsessive composer prompts this reflection on the nature of German Kultur from a friend who has seen one man's road to madness parallel a nation's:

Meanwhile a transatlantic general has the inhabitants of Weimar file past the crematoria of their local concentration camp and declares (should one say, unjustly?) that they, citizens who went about their business in seeming honesty and tried to know nothing, though at times the wind blew the stench of burned human flesh up their noses--declares that they share in the guilt for these horrors that are now laid bare and to which he forces them to direct their eyes.  Let them look--I shall look with them, in my mind's eye I let myself be jostled along in those same apathetic, or perhaps shuddering, lines.  Our thick-walled torture chamber, into which Germany was transformed by a vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start, has been burst open, and our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world, of foreign commissions, to whom these incredible scenes are displayed on all sides now and who report home that the hideousness of what they have seen exceeds anything the human imagination can conceive.  I repeat, our ignominy.  For is it mere hypochondria to tell oneself that all that is German--even German intellect, German thought, the German word--shares in the disgrace of these revelations and is plunged into profoundest doubt?  Is it morbid contrition to ask oneself the question: How can "Germany," whichever of its forms it may be allowed to take in the future, so much as open its mouth again to speak of mankind's concerns?  (505-506)

A profound and arresting work not least for grappling with these sorts of questions so soon after the war and from the vantage point of a justly defeated people in the narrator's eyes.  The fatherland, c'est moi, is it not?  (www.vintagebooks.com)

Thomas Mann (1875-1955)

Destiny--or at least a happy coincidence--led me to read Doctor Faustus in conjunction with the German Literature Month program that's now underway here and hereThanks to Sergio Pitol, whose specific raves about the novel in El arte de la fuga (Mexico, 1996) first led me to become interested in the work, and to Anthony and Caroline and Isabella for more general blogger motivation to check Mann out for the first time.

lunes, 7 de noviembre de 2011

El gaucho insufrible

El gaucho insufrible (Anagrama, 2009)
por Roberto Bolaño
España, 2003

Ya que siempre había imaginado que El gaucho insufrible figuraba entre las obras menores de Bolaño por alguna razón, vaya sorpresa descubrir que esta recopilación de cinco cuentos y dos ensayos ofrezca dos de las mejores obras cortas del chileno.  El cuento titular, por ejemplo, es un homenaje ruidoso a El Sur de Borges que cuenta la historia de un abogado bonaerense que trata de escaparse de la caída económica de Argentina en los años de 2001 y 2002 por refugiarse en un lejano lugar en la pampa.  Una vez instalado en el campo, de modo divertido el abogado Pereda se convierte en "el gaucho insufrible" en una tierra donde "ya no quedan caballos...sólo conejos" (27).  A pesar del escenario principalmente rural, el sentido de humor malicioso es puro Bolaño:  "Es difícil, decía, no ser feliz en Buenos Aires, que es la mezcla perfecta de París y Berlín, aunque si uno aguza la vista, más bien es la mezcla perfecta  de Lyon y Praga" (17).  Para mí, la otra joya obvia es el ensayo Los mitos de Cthulhu, una polémica sobre la literatura latinoamericana contemporanea en la cual Bolaño grita contra las supuestas virtudes de "la legibilidad" y "la respetabilidad".  El ejemplo que sigue es típico de la retórica corrosiva y desenfrenada: "Latinoamérica fue el manicomio de Europa así como Estados Unidos fue su fábrica.  La fábrica está ahora en poder de los capataces y locos huidos son su mano de obra.  El manicomio, desde hace más de sesenta años, se está quemando en su propio aceite, en su propia grasa" (168).  Entre las otras obras, las que más me gustaron fueron el cuento "El policía de las ratas", un noir con roedores supuestamente basado en Josefina la cantora o el pueblo de los ratones de Kafka, y el ensayo autobiográfico Literatura + enfermedad = enfermedad, que me dieron risas + crítica literaria + trauma en las dosis esperadas.  (http://www.anagrama-ed.es/)
Since I'd for some reason long harbored the sneaking suspicion that El gaucho insufrible [The Insufferable Gaucho] probably figured among Bolaño's lesser works, what a nice surprise it was to discover that this slender collection of five short stories and two essays contains at least two of the Chilean's best short pieces.  Take the title tale, for example, a riotous homage to Borges' "El Sur" which presents us with the story of a Buenos Aires lawyer who tries to escape from Argentina's 2001-2002 economic collapse by fleeing to a remote outpost in the pampas.  Once installed in the country, the city slicker Pereda undergoes a super amusing transformation into "the insufferable gaucho" in a land where only rabbits and no horses now remain.  Despite the mostly rural setting, the mischievous sense of humor is pure Bolaño: "Es difícil, decía, no ser feliz en Buenos Aires, que es la mezcla perfecta de París y Berlín, aunque si uno aguza la vista, más bien es la mezcla perfecta de Lyon y Praga" ["It's difficult, he used to say, not to be happy in Buenos Aires, which is like the perfect combination of Paris and Berlin--although if one looks more carefully, it's more like the perfect combination of Lyons and Prague"] (17).  For me, the other obvious standout is the essay "Los mitos de Cthulhu" ["The Myths of Cthulhu"], a screed on contemporary Latin American literature in which Bolaño rails against the twin nemeses of "legibility" and "respectability" for providing exactly what we don't need from our literature.  The example that follows is typical of the corrosive, no holds barred rhetoric: "Latinoamérica fue el manicomio de Europa así como Estados Unidos fue su fábrica.  La fábrica está ahora en poder de los capataces y locos huidos son su mano de obra.  El manicomio, desde hace más de sesenta años, se está quemando en su propio aceite, en su propia grasa" ["Latin America was the insane asylum of Europe just as the United States was its factory.  The factory is now in the hands of the foremen and fugitive madmen supply the labor.  The insane asylum, for more than 60 years now, is burning in its own oil, in its own fat"] (168).  Among the other pieces, I most enjoyed the short story "El policía de las ratas" ["Police Rat"], a rodent noir supposedly modeled on Kafka's "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk," and the autobiographical essay "Literatura + enfermedad = enfermedad" ["Literature + Illness = Illness"], which delivered laughter + literary criticism + trauma in the expected dosages.

Roberto Bolaño, el superhéroe

¿Qué pueden hacer Sergio Pitol, Fernando Vallejo y Ricardo Piglia contra la avalancha de glamour?  Poca cosa.  Literatura.  Pero la literatura no vale nada si no va acompañada de algo más refulgente que el mero acto de sobrevivir.  La literatura, sobre todo en Latinoamérica, y sospecho que también en España, es éxito, éxito social claro, es decir es grandes tirajes, traducciones a más de treinta idiomas (yo puedo nombrar veinte idiomas, pero a partir del idioma número 25 empiezo a tener problemas, no porque crea que el idioma número 26 no existe sino porque me cuesta imaginar una industria editorial y unos lectores birmanos temblando de emoción con los avatares mágico-realistas de Eva Luna), casa en Nueva York o Los Ángeles, cenas con grandes magnitarios (para que así descubramos que Bill Clinton puede recitar de memoria párrafos enteros de Huckleberry Finn con la misma soltura con que el presidente Aznar lee a Cernuda), portadas en Newsweek y anticipos millionarios (171-172).
What can Sergio Pitol, Fernando Vallejo and Ricardo Piglia do against the onslaught of glamor?  Hardly anything.  Literature.  But literature's not worth anything if it's not accompanied by something more refulgent than the mere act of surviving.  Literature, above all in Latin America but I suspect in Spain as well, is success, social success of course--which is to say big publishing runs, translations in more than thirty languages (I can name twenty languages, but beginning with #25 I begin to have problems--not because I think that #26 doesn't exist but because it's difficult for me to imagine a publishing industry and a few Burmese readers trembling with emotion at the magical realist transformations of Eva Luna), a house in New York or Los Angeles, dinners with business magnates (so that we can thereby learn that Bill Clinton can recite entire paragraphs of Huckleberry Finn by heart with the same ease that Aznar reads Cernuda), Newsweek covers and million-dollar advances (171-172).

martes, 1 de noviembre de 2011

One More Fact

Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs, "One More Fact" (2009)