lunes, 27 de agosto de 2012

The Man Without Qualities

The Man Without Qualities [Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften] (Vintage International, 1996)
by Robert Musil [translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike]
Austria, 1931 & 1933

A barometric low hung over the Atlantic.  It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction.  The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should.  The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature.  The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks.  The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal.  In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.
(The Man Without Qualities [translated by Sophie Wilkins], 3)

Although it took me long enough to finally finish the first 1130 pages of the famously unfinished The Man Without Qualities, I'm actually pretty psyched that I have over 600 pages of material "From the Posthumous Papers" left to sift through at some point since I'm not sure that any other novel has brought me such laughter and joy all year.  Seriously.  In any event, I knew Musil's sense of humor and I were going to get along just fine from the outset--or at least in the amount of time it took me to move on from the precise, pseudo-scientific description of the weather in the opening paragraph above to the gently mocking and yet equally precise description of an upscale couple walking down the "wide, bustling avenues" of a modern metropolis a mere one page later: "They clearly belonged to a privileged social class, with their distinguished bearing, style of dress, and conversation, the initials of their names embroidered on their underwear, and just as discreetly, which is to say not for outward show but in the fine underwear of their minds, they knew who they were and that they belonged in a European capital city and imperial residence" (4).  Surely, any man who can pen a line as unanticipatedly rich and rewarding as "in the fine underwear of their minds" is a man with a narrative voice to be trusted!  Whatever, seeing as how I hope to give both Ulrich, the 32-year old ex-scientist, ladies' man, sceptic, and titular "man without qualities," and some of the colorful cast of characters who cross his path as virtually all of 1913 Vienna prepares to celebrate the 70th year jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef their Caravana de recuerdos due in a series of Musil Monday posts scattered throughout September, for right now I'd merely like to focus on an overview of the work's structure.  Part I: A Sort of Introduction and Part II: Pseudoreality Prevails appear in Volume I of the Vintage edition I read while Part III: Into the Millenium (The Criminals) and several hundred pages of drafts "From the Posthumous Materials" make up Volume II (translators: Sophie Wilkins for the previously published but incomplete parts of the 1130 page "novel," Burton Pike the additional, mostly previously unpublished material that Musil took with him while attempting to finish the novel and flee from World War II's path).  So what's the book about?  Ha, more on that later!  Maybe.  However, please note that while Pike claims in his preface to the posthumous material that "Musil's purpose in writing The Man Without Qualities was a moral one.  He had set out to explore possibilities for the right life in a culture that had lost both its center and its bearings but could not tear itself away from its outworn forms and habits of thought, even while they were dissolving" (II, xii), you might never know that from the humor that permeates the work and from the fact that the wildest philosophical digressions and such are likely to be found in chapters with titles like "A Racehorse of Genius Crystallizes the Recognition of Being a Man Without Qualities."  Hmm, no doubt a good chapter to turn to next.  Until then, though, here's an introduction to Ulrich and a slightly less funny Musil after the man without qualities has just been beaten near-brainless on those same Vienna streets by unknown thugs:

Close by those streets where there is a policeman every three hundred paces to avenge the slightest offense against law and order lie other streets that call for the same strength of body and mind as a jungle.  Mankind produces Bibles and guns, tuberculosis and tuberculin.  It is democratic, with kings and nobles; builds churches and, against the churches, universities; turns cloisters into barracks, but assigns field chaplains to the barracks.  It naturally arms hoodlums with lead-filled rubber truncheons to beat a fellow man within an inch of his life and then provides featherbeds for the lonely, mistreated body, like the one now holding Ulrich as if filled with respect and consideration.  It is the old story of the contradictions, the inconsistency, and the imperfection of life.  It makes us smile or sigh.  But not Ulrich.  He hated this mixture of resignation and infatuation in regard to life that makes most people put up with its inconsistencies and inadequacies as a doting maiden aunt puts up with a young nephew's boorishness (22-23).

Robert Musil (1880-1942)

lunes, 20 de agosto de 2012

Ema, la cautiva

Ema, la cautiva (Editorial de Belgrano, 1981)
by César Aira
Argentina, 1981

Ema, la cautiva [Emma, the Captive should it ever be translated into English], Aira's first or second nivola depending on whether you care about whether his 1975 Moreira was actually published or was only written in that year, is an ahistorical fiction genre workout that might best be thought of as a sort of conceptual slap in the face to 19th century captivity tales like Esteban Echeverría's La cautiva and 19th century civilization and barbarism discourse like that found in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo.  In the unlikely event that I haven't already driven away all squares from this post, please rest assured that I'll try and stick to a description of the captivity story at hand here since I've yet to read Echeverría's work (actually a long poem) and have only read a handful of chapters from Sarmiento's idiosyncratic political biography-as-national ethnography.  These literary criticism ground rules now firmly established, I should probably point out that Aira's 234-page historiola, like many of the more visceral moments in his 2000 Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero [An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter] which is also set in some time-warped reconfiguration of the mid-19th century, begins with an apparent nod to the great realist writing of days gone by: "Una caravana viajaba lentamente al amanecer, los soldados que abrían la marcha se bamboleaban en las monturas medio dormidos, con la boca llena de saliva rancia" ["A caravan was traveling slowly at dawn.  The soldiers at the head of the march were swaying in their saddles half asleep, their mouths full of rancid saliva"] (7).  Before long, the presumably rancid saliva-free 21st century reader, jolted out of his or her city-dwelling lethargy by the immediacy of this atavistic country prose, will learn that the hardscrabble armed caravan consists of a mixed group of soldiers and prisoners sent from Buenos Aires to populate the frontier lands to the south.  Ambassadors of civilization!  The title character, it turns out, is one of the prisoners through no fault of her own.  And the soldiers?  "Eran hombres salvajes, cada vez más salvajes a medida que se alejaban hacia el sur.  La razón los iba abandonando en el desierto, el sitio excéntrico de la ley en la Argentina del siglo pasado" ["They were savage men, more and more savage as they moved further south.  Reason was abandoning them in the desert, the eccentric site of law in the Argentina of the past century"] (12-13).  Ema's frontier transformation from forced concubine to happy Indian bride of a warrior whose "entretenimiento favorito era la caza con gases paralizantes" ["favorite pastime was hunting with paralyzing gases"] (160) to a single business woman/ex-captive who rejects civilization in order to philosophize and shoot dice and view snow falling on the Patagonian beaches among the sleeping pill-happy and man-sized fish-hunting "savages" in the south takes up much of the rest of the novel, but why would I want to ply you with information about all that when I could just refer you to the unexpectedly difficult to translate letter that our young author has conveniently left for you on the back cover of his book instead?

César Aira

"Ameno lector:
     Hay que ser pringlense, y pertenecer al Comité del Significante, para saber que una contratapa es una "tapa en contra".  Sin ir más lejos, yo lo sé.  Pero por alguna razón me veo frivolamente obligado a contarte cómo se me ocurrió esta historiola.  La ocasión es propicia para las confidencias: una linda mañana de primavera, en el Pumper Nic de Flores, donde suelo venir a pensar.  Tomasito (dos años) juega entre las mesas colmadas de colegiales de incógnito.  Reina la desocupación, el tiempo sobra.
     Hace unos años yo era muy pobre, y ganaba lo necesario para analista y vacaciones traduciendo, gracias a la bondad de un editor amigo, largas novelas, de esas llamadas "góticas", odiseas de mujeres, ya inglesas, ya californianas, que trasladan sus morondangas de siempre por mares himenópticos, mares de té pasional.  Las disfrutaba, por supuesto, pero con la práctica llegué a sentir que había demasiadas pasiones, y que cada una anulaba a las demás como un desodorizante de ambientes.  Fue todo pensarlo y concebir la idea, atlética si las hay, de escribir una "gótica" simplificada.  Manos a la obra.  Soy de decisiones imaginarias rápidas.  El Eterno Retorno fue mi recurso.  Abjuré del Ser: me volví Sei Shonagaon, Scherazada, más los animales.  Las "anécdotas del destino".  Durante varias semanas me distraje.  Sudé un poco.  Me reí.  Y al terminar resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo mismo, había creado para mí una pasión nueva, la pasión por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas las cosas: la Indiferencia.  ¿Qué más pedir?"

[firmado] C Aira
"Agreeable reader:
     One has to be from Coronel Pringles and belong to the Commitee of the Significant to know that a back cover of a book is a 'cover that's against something.'  To take an obvious example: I know it.  But for some reason I find myself frivolously obliged to tell you how this storyola occurred to me.  The time is ripe for confidences: a beautiful spring morning at the Pumper Nic in Flores, where I'm wont to come to think.  Tomasito (two years old) is playing in between the tables overflowing with unknown school kids.  Leisure reigns, there's time to spare.
     A few years ago I was very poor, and I earned just enough for a shrink and vacations translating--thanks to the kindness of an editor friend--long novels, those that are called 'Gothic,' odysseys of women, now British, now Californian, that take the usual hodgepodge and set sail through hymen-optic seas, through oceans of passionate tea.  I enjoyed them, of course, but with practice I began to feel that there was too much passion and that each new one canceled out all the rest like an air freshener.  I gave it some thought and came up with the idea, an 'athletic' one if you will, of penning a simplified 'Gothic' novel.  Hands to the task. I'm prone to imaginary snap decisions.  Eternal Recurrence was my means.  I renounced Being: I turned into Sei Shonagon, Scheherazade, plus the animals.  The 'anecdotes of destiny.' I amused myself for several weeks.  I sweat a little.  I laughed.  And upon finishing, it turned out that Emma, my little female self, had created a new passion for me, the passion for which all other passions can be swapped just like money is swapped for everything: Indifference.  What more to ask for?"

[signed] C Aira

lunes, 13 de agosto de 2012

Eugénie Grandet

Eugénie Grandet (Le Livre de Poche, 2009)
by Honoré de Balzac
France, 1833

While I wasn't really sure what kind of storytelling experience to expect from my first Balzac ever, what I got was so plain and old-fashioned in some respects that I at times felt a little like an early '80s postpunk fan being confronted with a mid-'70s Bruce Springsteen record by mistake.  What the hell?  That being said, Eugénie Grandet wasn't exactly bad as an exemplar of 19th century earnest realism.  Balzac's relatively straightforward tale of woe--a miser's daughter discovers that her father isn't the only man in the world to place the love of money above love and all else in his life--is related with a subtlety that surprised me, and there was probably just enough of an off-kilter vibe to the characterizations to make up for the lack of narrative flashiness. Although I doubt I'll be reading too much more of La Comédie humaine anytime soon, that Springsteen comparison might seem like more of a slight than was called for if/when you stop to consider that this little book is big and contradictory enough to contain an outsized character like Monsieur Grandet, who at one point accuses his nephew of being a good for nothing for being more upset over his father's death than with his father's debts which he has inherited, and an occasionally sympathetic narrator who, despite casting Eugénie and her mother as "coeurs purs" ["pure hearts"] in contrast to père Grandet's personification of "L'Argent dans toute sa puissance" ["Money in all its power"], is still willing to chastise the Grandet women in a rare intrusive outburst: "Encore, combien d'ignorance dans leur naïveté!" ["Still, how much ignorance in their naïvety!"] (93).

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

I'm two weeks late for this post due to the reading hangover occasioned by Spanish Lit Month, but Eugénie Grandet was read with Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza fame.  Her review can be found here.

viernes, 3 de agosto de 2012

July-December Foreign Film Festival and World Cinema Series Links

Adrián Caetano's Bolivia (2001)

Since I think I'll be taking a break from the blog sometime soon, I'll be combining all movie links for my Foreign Film Festival and Caroline's World Cinema Series here for the second half of the year.  While I'm at it, here are a couple of non-film related events I'd like to mention before I forget again: 1) Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza is holding her Japanese Literature Challenge 6 until January 2013.  I'll be reading at least two works for this: Haruki Murakami's Kafka en la orilla (see the rad cover below) + another title to be decided on later (leading candidates at the moment: Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Rashomon and Other Stories, Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and Soseki Natsume's Kokoro).  Good choices or could I do even better?  2) Dwight of A Common Reader will be hosting a readalong of Benito Pérez Galdós' 1887 Fortunata and Jacinta in October.  Although I'm really looking forward to this, I'm more than a little put out to discover that the Spanish editions of the novel are about twice the length of the Penguin translation for some reason.  WTF, man/hombre?

July Foreign Film Reviews

August Foreign Film Reviews
  • Film (dir. Samuel Beckett, USA, 1965; reviewer: Dwight)
  • Pornografia (dir. Jan Jakub Kolski, Poland, 2003; reviewer: Dwight)
  • The Desert of the Tartars [Il deserto dei tartari] (dir. Valerio Zurlini, Italy, 1976; reviewer: Dwight)

Haruki Murakami's Kafka en la orilla (2002)