lunes, 30 de marzo de 2020

Kim

Kim (Oxford University Press, 2008)
by Rudyard Kipling
England, 1901

With fear and horror everywhere these days, I hope you'll forgive me this exercise in escapism.  Anyway, I read Kim recently and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The tale of Kimball "Kim" O'Hara, the son of an Irish soldier who's grown up native as an orphaned street urchin in Lahore, the novel follows our crafty young hero as he travels across creation with an elderly Tibetan lama, receives a British education at an elite boarding school described as a place where "precocious youths" would be sent for "generation [after] sallow-hued generation" (123), and is eventually lured into a prospective career with the Secret Service as a would be participant in the Great Game all while struggling to come to grips with his own identity.  Part bildungsroman, part travelogue, part adventure yarn, with just a hint of spy novel thrown into the mix, Kim moves at a brisk (if episodic) pace and manages to capture its title character's wide-eyed appreciation of and zest for the human pageantry on display in every nook and cranny of his journey.  In addition to touching on the appeal of both the active and the meditative life in highlighting the bond between the young Kim and the elderly lama--seekers both--Kipling connected with me emotionally by evoking some of the affection of a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza among other famous odd couples of fiction.  As far as the novelist's well-known "problematic" side, I didn't feel that was really in evidence here.  Instead, we're presented with the lesson that the "Sahib" Colonel Creighton imparts to Kim, warning him to eschew race and class prejudice and not to "at any time be led to contemn the black man...  There is no sin so great as ignorance.  Remember this" and the evidence that Kim himself buys into this open-minded worldview.  "And who are thy people, Friend of all the World?" the Afghan horse trader Mahbub Ali asks.  To which Kim replies, joking about a "little clay-walled room" but symbolizing the vast expanse of India before them, "This great and beautiful land" (119 & 136).  A sparkling story and just the tonic I needed.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

viernes, 14 de febrero de 2020

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (Penguin Classics, 2001)
by H.P. Lovecraft
USA, 1927

"Howard Phillips Lovecraft's unique contribution to American literature," the blurb on the back of my Penguin Classics edition of this collection asserts, "was a melding of traditional supernaturalism (derived chiefly from Edgar Allan Poe) with the emerging genre of science fiction in the early 1920s."  Correctly or not, I take that explanation to mean that Lovecraft liked to tell implausible stories with some sort of a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) as opposed to a supernatural underpinning where possible.  As far as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is concerned, that's more or less exactly what you get insofar as "the case of the missing madman" (92) collides feverish tales of grave robbing, necromancy, the raising of the dead, vampirism, cargos of mummies and the implausible like up against a "rational" world view informed by the latest advances of Einstein and "the modernistic Waste Land of Mr. T.S. Eliot" (182).  Never mind, for the moment, that Einstein's and Eliot's superpowers are found wanting by our unnamed narrator in comparison to the esoteric secrets handed down by ancient sorcerers through the ages!  Since I enjoyed my time with this short novel without really being able to put a finger on why, I'll have to give Lovecraft credit for keeping the pedal to the metal on the plot twists and turns and for deftly handling material that bounces back and forth between 17th century Salem and 20th century Providence with an impressive amount of period detail.  He's a good storyteller.  I was also amused by the one paragraph where a lesson from Oscar Wilde's life and the fate of a character in a Lord Dunsany tale were used to flesh out the back story of an ancestor of the title character--a rather freewheeling use of metafiction if you think about it.  Perhaps more intriguingly for one wondering about the distance between the novelist and his narrator, it's interesting to note the spotlight placed on antiquarianism as a possible explanation for Charles Dexter Ward's purported madness.  Given the writer's own predilection for archaic words (anent & eldritch being two handy examples) and a doctor character's contention that Ward's increasing infatuation with the "strange and archaic" offers signs of his madness "as if the snapping of the writer's mind had released a flood of tendencies and impressions picked up unconsciously through boyhood antiquarianism.  There is an obvious effort to be modern, but the spirit and occasionally the language are those of the past" (162), one can't help but ask: was Lovecraft poking fun at himself here or is this a mere red herring in terms of the plot?  Whatever, Lovecraft is said to have disparaged this tale as clunky and unfit for publication or some such.  For my part, I found it brimming with the "prime, forbidden, crazy stuff" that Amateur Reader (Tom) predicted I might find in the comments to a previous Lovecraft post here.  Wild.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

Source
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft's longest-ever piece at just over a hundred pages, appears on pages 90-205 of The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Tales (New York: Penguin Books, 2001).

viernes, 31 de enero de 2020

The 2020 Argentinean Literature of Doom: January

Rodrigo Fresán

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Mantra by Rodrigo Fresán

To my knowledge, I was the only doomster to review something for the 2020 Argentinean Literature of Doom this month but no worries since we have 11 months left for the rest of you to catch up to the furious pace of that start of mine.  Still, here's a related ALoD tidbit to beef up the lone link above.  In Pepe Fernández's June 29, 2003 "El país de Juan Rodolfo Wilcock" ["Juan Rodolfo Wilcock's Country"], which I hope to return to later in the Doom calendar year, there's a series of great anecdotes having to do with Argentine turned Italian Borges and Silvina Ocampo and Pier Paolo Pasolini pal/writer and actor and translator J.R. Wilcock.  Would you like to hear the one about the talking cat?  Wilcock, who was meeting with Gigi Proietti at Wilcock's home in Italy to discuss a translation of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, "exponía sus ideas con una voz calma" ["was calmly expounding his ideas"] according to memoirist Vittorio Gassman "cuando un gato cruzó la habitación diciendo claramente: 'Me voy porque ustedes me aburren'" ["when a cat crossed the room clearly saying, 'I'm leaving because you two are boring me'"].  "El escritor continuó hablando imperturbablemente.  Al cabo de un instante, Gigi no pudo más y preguntó, estupefacto: 'Pero... acabo de ver pasar un gato, ¿no?  'Sí, sí, es mi gato.'  'Me imaginaba pero, ¿habla?'  Y Wilcock, secamente: 'Sí, pero no siempre.  Así que como decíamos, Fausto...'" ["The writer continued speaking as if nothing had happened.  After a moment, Gigi couldn't take it any more and, stunned, asked, 'But...did I just see a cat pass by?'  'Yes, yes, that's my cat.'  'I thought so, but he talks?'  Wilcock, drily: 'Yes, but not all the time.  So as we were saying, Faust...'"].

viernes, 24 de enero de 2020

Mantra

Mantra (Mondadori, 2002)
by Rodrigo Fresán
Spain, 2001

So what might a 2020 Argentinean Literature of Doom novel written in Barcelona but set in Mexico City look like?  Well, I'm so glad you asked!  Three chatty narrators--one about to be dead, one already dead, and one probably lucky not to be dead--weigh in on their association with the shadowy Martín Mantra, who's first introduced to us as a Russian roulette-loving schoolboy with a gun in his hand.  As the quasi-science fiction space time continuum of the 500-plus page opus expands from this, pardon the expression, initial storytelling big bang, the shape-shifting Mantra is revealed to be either the prodigal son of a super wealthy Mexican film- and telenovela-making family, a guerrilla commander in Chiapas fighting under the comic book-like name of Capitán Godzilla, a sort of messianic figure dear to the lucha libre community or maybe all of the above.  While somewhat repetitive in spots, Fresán's freewheeling shaggy dog story has a lot to commend itself to the Des Esseintes aesthetes among you.  Fellow Roberto Bolaño fans, for example, may well laugh out loud with delight as I did upon coming across this otherwise run of the mill description of one of the young Mantra's tutors--"Chileno.  Poeta.  Arturo, se llamaba.  O Roberto" ["Chilean.  Poet.  His name was Arturo.  Or Roberto"], the face and name of the tutor now hazy but not the image of the poet unleashing verses on his listeners from tabletops "como cayeron las bombas sobre tantas otras ciudades" ["like the bombs dropped on so many other cities"].  Uncredited selections from the poems "En la sala de lecturas del infierno" ["In the Reading Room of Hell"] and "Godzilla en México" ["Godzilla in Mexico"] drop the mic at the end of the inside joke (86-88).  Elsewhere, in the long second section of the book narrated as an A-Z of encyclopedia entries, we're treated to an ace six-page set piece on "D.F. (Historia)" ["Mexico City (History)"] told backwards from the here and now of the apocalyptic present  to before the founding of Tenochtitlan--the rewind style leading to such bodily fluid highlights as "Veo a Malcolm Lowry aterrorizado por su propio vómito saltándole a la cara con la ferocidad de un organismo extraterrestre" ["I see Malcolm Lowry horrified by his own vomit pouring back into his face with the ferocity of an extraterrestrial organism"] and "El esperma conquistador de Cortés vuelve a sus testículos conquistadores" ["Cortés' conquistador sperm returns to his conquistador testicles"] (237 & 240).  Mantra, which was commissioned by Mondadori to be the Mexico City entry in a series of novels dedicated to the great metropolises of the world, naturally has more than its share of local color.  The flavors come in varieties 1) expected--the description of a masked wrestling-themed food joint known as El Cuadrilátero ["The Ring"], purveyors of a nearly three-pound sandwich known as "la legendaria torta Gladiador" ["the legendary Gladiator torta"]; 2) unexpected--as in the revelation that the Cafetería El Cuadrilátero actually exists and can be sought out by the hungry reader at Luis Moya 73, Local Cuatro, Colonia Centro (260-262); and 3) super unexpected--get back to me once any of you poseurs come up with a character name as awe-inspiring as Jesús Nazareno y de Todos los Santos Mártires en la Tierra Fernández (a.k.a) Black Hole (a.k.a) Mano Muerta.  For those looking for more doom than comedy, rest assured that you can find it here mixed--a married woman's comic lament that "Yo vivo en el primer párrafo de Ana Karenina" ["I live in the first paragraph of Anna Karenina"] (352)--or straight up courtesy of Joan Vollmer's bitter rant from beyond the grave over being left a permanent resident of Mexico City with a hole in the forehead "y el sonido de mar que hace una bala cuando entra en tu cabeza" ["and the sound of the sea that a bullet makes when it enters your head"] thanks to her hubby William Burroughs' fondness for playing with guns whilst on vacation (496).  Anyway, hope you get the ALoD picture.

Rodrigo Fresán (Buenos Aires, 1963)

domingo, 5 de enero de 2020

Les gouvernantes

Les gouvernantes (Champ Vallon, 1992)
por Anne Serre
Francia, 1992

Les gouvernantes [Las institutrices; en inglés, The Governesses], la divertida primera novela de la francesa Anne Serre, tiene toda la riqueza narrativa de una fábula, un cuento de hadas erótico o incluso una novelita de don César Aira.  Las tres institutrices del título, Eléonore, "une espèce de femme à la manière d'Ingres" ["una especie de mujer en el estilo de Ingres"], Laura, "plus douce, plus tendre" ["más dulce, más cariñosa"], e Inès, "très espagnole...la plus vive des trois" ["muy española...la más vivaz de las tres"] (61-62), viven en un mundo cerrado y casi mágico centrado en la casa y el terreno de sus empleadores el monsieur Austeur y la madame Austeur.  Allí las adolescentes organizan fiestas elaboradas para los chicos de la casa, tienen aventuras amorosas bastante picantes, van de excursiones desnudas y otras cosas por el estilo.  Serre tiene una manera traviesa con sus palabras como se puede ver en las descripciones de sus protagonistas: se dice que Laura tiene "une langue serpentine" ["una lengua serpentina"], Eléonore está sujeta a "vipérines pensées" ["pensamientos venenosos"] y, una mañana, todas las chicas "s'arment de stylets" ["se arman con tacones de aguja"] y llevan "un aspic entre leurs seins" ["una víbora entre los senos"] (57, 62 y 63).  El lenguaje, aunque juguetón, está enriquecido por su lado sexualizado y sus alusiones ironizantes a la historia de Eva y la serpiente.  Serre, que recién publicó una novela que se llama Viaje con Vila-Matas en la que el famosísimo español se convierte en el narrador del libro, también demuestra una sensibilidad caprichosa en cuanto a su punto de vista autorial; una escena concluye con el comentario que "C'est une scène pareille à celle d'un conte, parce qu'alors des animaux apparaissent à la lisière du bois" ["Es una escena semejante a la de un cuento porque luego aparecen unos animales en el borde del bosque"] (69) y otra, cerca del final, concluye con la desaparición de los personajes de la página.  Genial.

Anne Serre

martes, 31 de diciembre de 2019

The Sweet Science

The Sweet Science (The Library of America, 2009)
by A.J. Liebling
USA, 1956

It is through Jack O'Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadelphiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands.  He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906.  Jack had a scar to show for it.  Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace.  It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.  I wonder if Professor Toynbee is as intimately attuned to his sources.  The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder.
(The Sweet Science, 5)

It's a pleasure to end the blogging year with A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science, easily the funniest book I read in all of 2019 and a volume imbued with passion for and knowledge about its subject: the world of boxing and all those who are associated with it.  For those so inclined, it's easy to surrender to the fight reporter's charms: boxing analysis, ring history, great anecdote after great anecdote, and of course jeers overheard in the crowd all unfurl in a Bayeux tapestry of crackerjack prose and vintage smack talk.  For example, how could you not have a good time when confronted with Chandleresque quips like this one about the ex-featherweight champ Abe Attell and then trainer for Rocky Marciano, "who looks at you with cold eyes around his huge beak that is like a toucan's with a twisted septum" (34) or this one which harpoons M.B.A. publicity director Maurie Waxman as "a hyperthyroid fellow who is happiest when strangling with rage" (142-143) or this nugget about Archie Moore and a tough Madison Square Garden opponent--"Both fighters looked tired, but Moore looked mean-tired behind his whiskers, like Mephistopheles on a hot night" (160)?  Impossible!  Similarly, it was difficult not to thrill to Liebling's running gag about boxing writing legend Pierce Egan (1772-1849), blandly championed as "the greatest writer about the ring who ever lived" early on (10) and then waggishly celebrated as "the Froissart of the London prize ring" (89), "the Sire de Joinville of the London prize ring" (94) and "the Edward Gibbon and Sir Thomas Malory of the old London prize ring" (211) at regular intervals throughout (for variation, Egan's magazine gets its own homage from the respectful Liebling, 1904-1963, on page 135: "I quote from Boxiana, the Mille et Une Nuits of the London prize ring").  Of course, for those looking for heavyweight punching power rather than these style points of the jab, The Sweet Science also has some memorable bits on the psychology of fandom ("When Louis knocked Savold out, I came away singularly revived--as if I, rather than Louis, had demonstrated resistance to the erosion of time.  As long as Joe could get by, I felt, I had a link with an era when we were both a lot younger.  Only the great champions give their fellow citizens time to feel that way about them, because only the great ones win the title young and hold on to it" [26]) and, speaking about the erosion of time, a superb closing piece pitting Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano as the Ahab and Nemesis of '50s ring culture in which Camus, Melville, and Marciano's "natural prehistoric style" (212-213) all have a part to play in the elegant Moore's mini-tragedy underneath the lights at the old Yankee Stadium.  Loved this book.  Look forward to revisiting it down the road.

Marciano vs. Moore, 1955

Quotes from Liebling's personality-laden The Sweet Science come from The Sweet Science and Other Writings (New York: The Library of America, 2009, 1-225).

martes, 24 de diciembre de 2019

All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses (Everyman's Library, 1999)
by Cormac McCarthy
USA, 1992

A coming of age story set in 1949, All the Pretty Horses follows sixteen year old John Grady Cole and his seventeen year old childhood friend Lacey Rawlins on a horse ride out of small town Texas and across the river into Mexico in search of work as cowboys in Coahuila state.  Along the way, trouble finds them in the person of an even younger boy named Jimmy Blevins, whose propensity for not thinking, bad luck and maybe more than a little touch of evil will play out with tragic consequences for both the riders and some of the people who cross their path.  While I'd wondered what it'd be like to read a McCarthy novel that was more conventional than Blood Meridian, I found All the Pretty Horses just as absorbing and gritty as its in-your-face predecessor.  Of course, I was wowed once again by the novelist's descriptive flair.  This Juan Rulfo-like bit, live from a Mexican holding cell, is typical of McCarthy's ability to paint a scene with a minimum of well-chosen brushstrokes: "They could hear sounds from the distant village.  Dogs.  A mother calling.  Ranchero music with its falsetto cries almost like an agony played out of a cheap radio somewhere in the nameless night" (161).  I was also smitten by the very cadences of the prose: "She looked up at him and her face was pale and austere in the uplight and her eyes lost in their darkly shadowed hollows save only for the glint of them and he could see her throat move in the light and he saw in her face and in her figure something he'd not seen before and the name of that thing was sorrow" (140).  Finally, in a novel dominated by and large by laconic figures attempting to make some sense out of loss, I appreciated the space McCarthy afforded his characters to engage in philosophical digressions on subjects as varied as the souls of horses and the ubiquity of violence in Mexican history--"In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments.  Those whom life does not cure death will.  The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even when we will not" (238)--not to mention the virtuoso dream sequences and the naked emotion of this scene where John Grady realizes that the end of his love affair with the seventeen year old Alejandra is just another life lesson in the apparent randomness of things: "He lay listening to the horse crop the grass at his stakerope and he listened to the wind in the emptiness and watched stars trace the arc of the hemisphere and die in the darkness at the edge of the world and as he lay there the agony in his heart was like a stake.  He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations.  What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits" (256-257).  An understandable fear and not only for a sixteen or seventeen year old, no?  Ace.

Cormac McCarthy