miércoles, 10 de abril de 2019

The Balkan Trilogy: 2, The Spoilt City

The Balkan Trilogy: 2, The Spoilt City (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Olivia Manning
England, 1962

Guy and Harriet Pringle are still trying to stick things out in WWII Bucharest for most of the dramatic second act of Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy--to my mind, simultaneously a less showy but a more addictive read than its predecessor in terms of writing and plot--but the inexorability of events in The Spoilt City makes it abundantly clear that that will only be a matter of time: "Stay, and you will see a country die" warns one character with a healthy dose of gallows humor and even more predictive precision (314).  In sketching Romania's fall at the hands of first the amateur homegrown fascists and later the pros from Nazi Germany, Manning is deft at portraying the changing fortunes of major and minor characters alike as well as the futility of the situation more generally--Harriet, musing about the Drucker trial in which a wealthy and formerly well-connected Jew is imprisoned on trumped-up charges as a way for the state to rob him of his assets, here resignedly observes that "no one doubted the innocence of this friendless man, but that factor did not bear discussion.  No one could help him.  He was a victim of the times" (381).  Elsewhere, the significance of being a victim of the times is also brought home to gregarious British expat Yakimov when, on a fact-finding visit to Cluj, he hears from "an important-looking Jew" that a two-year old Romanian passport is now just "a ticket to a concentration camp" and then is told by an old German acquaintance of his that the time for westerners to flee the country is now.  Right now.  But to where?  "Europe is finished for you, of course.  North Africa will go next.  Perhaps to India.  It will be some time before we get there" (426 & 438).  The point, belabored as it may be in my telling of it, is that Manning's novel would seem to have no right to be as entertaining as it is even without the world at war momentum swing midway through The Spoilt City in which we learn that "the blitz on London has begun," "suicides were occurring daily" and German officers in Bucharest were beginning to be hailed by the locals as "these conquerors of the world" all in less than 25 pages of high adrenaline prose (467, 474 & 491).  How Manning arrived at her storytelling achievement, in that light at least, is a bit of a mystery to me.

Olivia Manning

domingo, 31 de marzo de 2019

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers [Trois mousquetaires] (Oxford World's Classics, 2009)
by Alexandre Dumas [translated from the French by William Barrow]
France, 1844

Whatever his defects as a writer's writer, the feuilleton kingpin Alexandre Dumas' "vitality & exuberance," as bigtime Dumas fan Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git has put it, certainly won me over during the course of the 600+ pages of The Three Musketeers which I read at last with great enjoyment earlier in the month.  For somebody who'd been worried that such an old-fashioned combination of historical fiction bromance + high testosterone swashbuckling might not = enough to satisfy my jaded entertainment needs at such an extended length, I'm pleased to report that I was almost constantly amused by the novel's good natured humor (d'Artagnan to his attendant: "Well done, Planchet!  You are the very king of valets"), the arch dialogue among the various musketeers ("'Faith,' said Aramis, 'I confess that I am reluctant to fire upon these poor devils of citizens.'  'He is a bad priest,' said Porthos, 'who pities heretics.'"), the Count Fosco-like villainy of its smiling villains ("'My compliments to the cardinal.'  'My compliments to Satan!'") and, hell, even the clumsy segueways ("We will now leave the two friends, who had nothing very important to say to one another, and follow Aramis") and the weird hand porn ("It was one of those perfumed gloves which the lover likes to pull from a pretty hand") (303, 427, 565, 331 & 225). Dumas, who would seem to have nothing in common with a modern day descendant like Mathias Enard other than an infatuation with storytelling, also pulls off a scene in which a terrified character's hair stands on end in the face of death, and on a biographical note was apparently quite a likable personality himself filling "his leisure hours," as David Coward's intro inform us, "with writing and love-affairs" (ix).  Thumbs-up.

Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

domingo, 10 de marzo de 2019


Zone (Actes Sud, 2015)
by Mathias Enard
France, 2008

As in a spy novel updated to reflect some of the more unpleasant aspects of our post-9/11 reality, Francis Servain Mirković is a half French/half Croatian secret service functionary en route from Milan to Rome with a suitcase full of top secret dossiers and a murky past of his own in tow. Aboard the train, addled by drink and amphetamines and possibly on the verge of cracking up due to a lifetime spent both furthering and documenting dirty tricks from one end of the Mediterranean to another, his story about work and play in the Zone comes gushing out in a 500-plus page torrent of internal monologue and guilt-wracked memories only two or three times interrupted by scenes from the novel about the Intifada he's reading.  Despite the hype Zone's received even from people whose tastes I trust, I wasn't quite prepared for how phenomenal its one sentence + digressions would be.  In part a riff on the Iliad but with the Battle of Lepanto, the Nazi concentration camps, the French-Algerian conflict, and the Bosnian war among the main substitution sites for the clash taking place at "Ilion la bien gardée" ["well-defended Ilion"] (152), the novel's bold enough in its guise as a 21st century song of wrath to make liberal use of Homeric epithets (cf. the Berbers as "dompteurs de cavales" ["tamers of horses"] on p. 162 and "l'Hadès grand mangeur de guerriers" ["Hades, great devourer of warriors"] on p. 416) in anachronistic homage to its oral literature urtext (Pound's Cantos are another source of inspiration).  Similarly, Enard's prose often struck me as unabashedly poetic in nature despite the horrors Mirković's monologue evokes.  You can sense it and sometimes even hear it in the compressed wordplay (cf. "en Sicile île mortelle" [literally "on Sicily, deadly island"] on p. 169 and "la Méditerranée, le cimetière bleu" ["the Mediterranean, the blue cemetery"] on p. 283), but you don't exactly half to will yourself to "see" it as well in Mirković's vivid dreamscape of suicide bombers, where "ces petits Christs solaires" ["these little solar Christs"] in the form of severed heads launched into the air due to the force of the martyrdom explosions, are imagined contemplating Jerusalem one last time from on high before leaving this world for the next  (201-202 & 462).  How to make sense of a narrator that celebrates John of Patmos as the "premier romancier de la fin du monde" ["first novelist of the end of the world"] (249) and a novel which itself expends hundreds of pages reminding us that war is the natural state of man are probably acts best left to the individual reader.  For my part, I enjoyed the Life a User's Manual- and The Savage Detectives-like giddiness of Enard's storytelling even if one of Zone's lasting messages--that, for somebody or other, right or wrong,  "il y a toujours des Carthages à détruire" ["there are always Carthages to destroy"] (107)--is perhaps less enjoyable or giddy as a thematic takeaway through no fault of Enard's.  Whatever,  a real feat.

Mathias Enard

martes, 5 de marzo de 2019

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Olivia Manning
England, 1960

"All I have is here," newlywed Harriet Pringle says of British expat life with her husband Guy, stateless freeloader Yakimov, and assorted displaced malcontents in faraway Bucharest, a problem since the storm clouds of what will soon become World War II are increasingly threatening the then neutral Romania with just what it means to be "a peaceful nation in someone else's war" (267 & 235).  That heavy duty geopolitical backdrop notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this first foray into Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and the first of six volumes in her Fortunes of War double trilogy.  On the most superficial level, I was pleased to discover that Manning's something of a Muriel Spark-like savage charmer on the observational front--perceptive in painting sympathetic but conflicted Harriet into something of a haves and have nots corner during an early run-in with some child beggars ("The children clung like lice.  They caught hold of her arms, their faces screwed into the classical mask of misery while they whined and whimpered in chorus" [122]) but also completely unremorseful in alluding to a poverty-stricken local dressmaker as "a tiny creature, very thin, smelling of mouldy bread.  Her face, which had one cheek full and one caught-in like a deformed apple, was dark yellow and heavily moustached" out of sheer descriptive malice elsewhere (262).  More significantly,  although somewhat related to this, I appreciated the fact that Manning's a bit of a slippery character when it comes to narrative POV.  If it wasn't always clear to me how much those sort of class-conscious sentiments were hers rather than her roman à clef characters', I'm willing to chalk that up to nuance in a novel which grapples with condescension to the Romanians on the part of the international community and the prejudice of the rich against the poor among all but one or two of the more idealistic characters regardless of nationality.  One of The Great Fortune's successes or at least one of the more ironic examples of Manning's sleight of hand, in fact, is how long the novel seems to side with the expat community in focusing on its fear about "the disintegration of their adopted world" (259) even while the disintegration of that same world has been hiding in plain sight all along for the Jews who have been hauled into jail on trumped-up charges and the poor freezing to death in bunches every time winter rolls around.  In short, a lively, fast-paced read but also "a cheap holiday in other people's misery" as some other blokes might have it.

Olivia Manning (1908-1980) in 1955

jueves, 7 de febrero de 2019

Poema de Fernán González

Poema de Fernán González (Editorial Castalia, 1993)
Castilla, c. 1250

En el nombre del Padre, autor de toda cosa,
y en el del que nació de la Virgen preciosa,
y en el del Santo Espíritu, que a la par de ellos posa,
del Conde de Castilla quiero hacer una prosa.
(Poema de Fernán González 1)

Un poema épico, compuesto hacia 1250 con rimas "a sílabas contadas" en el estilo del llamado Mester de Clerecía, sobre las hazañas de Fernán González, un conde de Castilla de carne y hueso del siglo X.  A pesar de versar con una u otra escenas sobrenaturales en la tradición de los romances populares, el poeta parece adentrarse más en el mundo histórico y menos en el mundo imaginativo como se puede ver en el principio sobre los orígenes de Castilla en el que hay varias estrofas dedicadas a la llegada de los godos en España y a su eventual conversión al cristianismo.  Esta tensión entre el contenido histórico y el épico se observa a lo largo del poema y es uno de sus rasgos esenciales.  A diferencia de la Chanson de Roland francesca, por ejemplo, el Poema de Fernán González habla de dos derrotas de Carlomagno en España a las manos de los españoles (véanse estrofas 134 y 144) al mismo tiempo que Carlomagno y Roldán y Olivero figuran entre una lista de celebres guerreros históricos y legendarios que también incluye Alejandro, Baldovinos, y "el rey David que mató a Golías" (357-358).  Este vaivén entre el realismo y lo legendario también se nota en las descripciones aplicadas a cristianos y moros donde hay una mezcla de generalidades y especificidad en cuanto a los musulmanes.  El conde del poema, como un líder de "los cruzados" (79) y "esa gente cruzada" (470) es por supuesto retratado propagandisticamente como un "vasallo" del "alto Criador": "tú eres su vasallo y él es tu Señor" (412).  Los enemigos, por su parte, son llamados "los pueblos paganos" (142), "los pueblos renegados" (205) y, más específicamente en cuanto al registro histórico, "los almohades y los benemerinos" (390) y "las huestes africanas" (566) durante la lucha entre los castellanos y las fuerzas de Almanzor.  Si el Poema de Fernán González no tiene la vitalidad de o el Cantar de Mio Cid o la Chanson de Roland, ya tiene sus momentos; me gustaron la imagen de la toma de España  evocada por los versos "España la gentil fue luego destruída; era señora de ella la gente descreída" (89) y el colorido del poeta al describir los moros de Almanzor como  "mas feos que Satán con todo su convento/al salir del infierno sucio y carboniento" (391).  La rima de éste compensa el prejuicio de la época tal vez.

El único manuscrito del Poema de Fernán González

domingo, 27 de enero de 2019

Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple Sage (Barnes & Noble, 2004)
by Zane Grey
USA, 1912

Super famous but thoroughly hack western which, despite being intermittently entertaining in spite of itself, might be most "memorable" for the virulence of its anti-Mormon themes and for the fact that Indians are mentioned a million times in the course of the novel without ever once making a non-figurative appearance within its pages.  Weird!  Given that Riders is set in southern Utah in the 1870s, the narrative's obsession with Native Americans but only with Native Americans who are always offscreen struck me as much more mystifying than either the hackery or the religious intolerance.  I mean, even if some of the native "presence" conjured up by and apparently significant to Grey--the references to kivas and the vanished cliff-dwellers of bygone times, for example--is clearly attributable to the demands of landscape and plot, what are we to make of the profusion of "good" ("Little Fay there--she sees things as they appear on the face.  An Indian does that.  So does a dog.  An' an Indian an' a dog are most of the time right in what they see.  Mebbe a child is always right") (228), bad ("Then it was that Venters' primitive, childlike mood, like a savage's, seeing yet unthinking, gave way to the encroachment of civilized thought") (153) and indifferent ("My father got his best strain [of horses] in Nevada from Indians who claimed their horses were bred down from the original stock left by the Spaniards") (28) allusions to Indians when Indian characters are otherwise entirely whitewashed from the text (that last allusion being the closest thing to a possible exception)?  Was this a genre thing--giving readers what somebody thought they wanted, cowboys and Indians in absentia if you would?  Whatever, kind of a strange choice to wind up as "the most popular western novel of all time" although granted Grey's dual love stories, creaky, pulp plot shenanigans about masked riders and hidden valleys, and awkwardly earnest prose ("He saw destiny in the dark, straight path of her wonderful eyes" [117]) naturally just might strike a more Proustian chord with you than they did with me.  Then again, maybe not!

Zane and Dolly Grey, c. 1906

domingo, 2 de septiembre de 2018

Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018: 8/26-8/31 Links

With Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018 now over, I'd like to thank everybody who helped make it happen this year and to thank Stu for letting me co-host it with him again.  I had a lot of fun and hope you all found something of interest--a new blog, a great book, whatever--along the way as well.  Anyway, here's the last week's worth of links generated by the event.  On a related note, I'll be running a month-long version of the Argentinean Literature of Doom in December this year if anybody cares to join me for some end of the year gnashing of teeth.  Stay tuned for further details eventually and/or check out last year's welcome post here if you have no idea what I'm talking about.  Cheers.

Agnese, Beyond the Epilogue
The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza

David Hebblethwaite, David's Book World
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

Joseph Screiber, roughghosts

Juliana Brina, the [blank] garden
Hilda Hilst (profile and bibliography)
Because there is desire within me, everything glimmers (poems by Hilda Hilst)

lizzysiddal, Lizzy's Literary Life
#edbookfest 2018: Teresa Solana

Paul, By the Firelight
Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid's Long November) by Juan Edwardo Zúñiga

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
"Mimoso" by Silvina Ocampo

Scott, seraillon