viernes, 27 de noviembre de 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife

Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong, Part Two

"Suddenly Kristin was overcome by violent sobs; she hardly knew what she was crying about."  (Kristin Lavransdatter, II: The Wife, p. 562)

While I'm mostly over feeling guilty about inviting so many trusting people to read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy along with Emily and me (my bad), the shame and the embarrassment definitely linger on as this singularly uninvolving work continues to take shape as an 1,100 page Norwegian print version of a Lifetime channel drama or something. For whatever Undset's storytelling goals in The Wife, she's clearly her own worst enemy as a narrator--constantly undermining the flow of the narrative with the title character's endless crying jags, jealous whining about family members, and non-stop brooding.   To make matters worse, the flair for landscape scenes that I found at least partially appealing in The Wreath has now been replaced with completely superfluous descriptions about people's appearance at every turn.  Right after one of the occasions in which Erlend has struck Kristin, for example, we get the following odd insight into Erlend's state of mind: "Oh, his wife's quiet and dignified bearing was as lovely as the willowy grace of the young maiden had been; she was wider in the bosom and hips, but she was also taller.  She held herself erect, and her neck bore the small, round head as proudly and beautifully as ever.  Her pale, remote face with the dark-gray eyes stirred and excited him as much as her round, rosy child's face had stirred and excited his restless soul with its wondrous calm" (610).  While it would be nice to think that Undset's actually getting at something here--some truth about the husband and wife dynamic, some hint about gender relations in 14th-century Norway--I sincerely doubt there's any method to her madness: The Wife is filled with similarly empty, sometimes outright laughable descriptions about people from all walks of life, and no amount of "authentic medieval" references to the licking of festering eye wounds or of an adult giving hickeys to the twelve year old sister of an ex-fiancée of his can mask Undset's undeniably conformist tendencies as a narrator.  And with the novel's two most interesting characters, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, now dead, the only suspense left in part three for me will be seeing how schmaltzy things get as Undset prepares for the big sentimental finale with that lack of subtlety that she has so clearly established as her calling card.  To borrow a quip from an old punk rock fanzine friend of mine, "g-e-n-e-r-i-c gets easier and easier to spell every day"!  (

Sigrid Undset and her dog Erlend

Other readalong posts on The Wife:

martes, 24 de noviembre de 2009


Senselessness [Insensatez] (New Directions, 2008)
by Horacio Castellanos Moya (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver)
Guatemala and Mexico, 2004

As I grudgingly make my way through the entertainment no man's land that is the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (update post later in the week), I'm happy to report that a novel about fucking genocide of all things has provided quite the welcome distraction.  In this short but incendiary novel, an unnamed narrator from an unnamed Latin American country is hired to be the copy editor in yet another unnamed Lat Am country for the latter land's 1,100 page human rights report on military atrocities committed against its indigenous population (although the particular countries are never mentioned, internal clues tip us off to the fact that the narrator's a refugee from El Salvador working in Guatemala before Bishop Gerardi's assassination). While polishing the report, the horrors of the testimony ("I am not complete in the mind" admits one man who has watched his wife and four children be hacked to death by machetes [1-2]; "There in Izote the brains they were thrown about, smashed with logs they spilled them" says another survivor [51]) and the narrator's own personal demons (alcoholism, drug dependency, womanizing, unspecified "personal problems") combine to haunt the character to the point that he's gradually turned into a raving paranoiac wreck in fear for his own life.  Rightly or wrongly. What follows is both predictable and unpredictable in more or less equal measure, an outcome I attribute more to the challenge of confronting genocide through fiction than the novelist's own chops as a writer.  For if the trajectory of the novel was telegraphed a little too far in advance for my tastes and its first person tone was too over the top for its own good on occasion, Castellanos Moya's prose in general throughout and a brutally ironic ending still seemed worthy of his grim subject matter.  Put that in your historical fiction pipe and smoke it, ladies.  (

Horacio Castellanos Moya

Note: I read this book in translation because I couldn't find the original Spanish version of Insensatez at my university library or local foreign language bookstore.  For more on Castellanos Moya's own background and writing, check out this profile here and a piece he did on his friend Bolaño Inc. here.

martes, 17 de noviembre de 2009

Chess Story

Chess Story [Schachnovelle] (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Stefan Zweig (translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg)
Brazil, 1942

Before any of you out there rush to commend me for my rare fiscal restraint in borrowing a book from the library rather than just buying it as usual, please be advised that the unrestrained ugliness of the cover above likely had a tremendous amount to do with the decision (note to the NYRB Classics design team: in a week in which Frances the Book Temptress just posted on an exquisite series of new Nabokov cover art that has everybody and his brother drooling, "thanks" for leaving me holding the bag here with that "trippy" 1980s science fiction fanzine level shite of yours that mars an otherwise fine publication).  All grumbling about design matters aside, the content in Zweig's 84-page novella provided for an altogether ace introduction to this previously unread by me Austrian writer.  While the plot sounds rather inauspicious in terms of the excitement level to be expected--the passengers on board an NYC to Buenos Aires ocean liner discover that the world champion chess master Mirko Centovic is on board and challenge him to a couple of pay-for-play matches pitting the group of seemingly outmatched amateurs against the arrogant champion--the story's told with such first-person verve that I can understand why it's hard to avoid Zweig review sightings when trolling through the blogosphere.  Whether you enjoy the nervewracking battle of wills that ensues as straight entertainment or prefer one of the more allegorical readings of the chess story that I've seen (the bumbling passengers ineptly facing up to the rude, Hitlerian Centovic as WWII rages on in the background), you'll prob. be impressed with Zweig's deceptively simple prose and ability to ratchet up the emotional tension without Sigrid Undset-like histrionics.  For those of you already familiar with this author's work, perhaps one of you would be so good as to tell me whether I should read Beware of Pity or The Post-Office Girl next.  They're both now on "the list."  (

Stefan Zweig

P.S. Although I intentionally left out "key information" about a major character in Chess Story above to try and preserve at least one element of surprise for new readers of the work, Zweig's own sad story deserves at least a footnote here: a refugee from the Nazi war machine, he fled Europe for South America before eventually killing himself in a suicide pact with his wife in Brazil in 1942.  The completed manuscript of Schachnovelle was found among his belongings at his death--apparently expressly intended for posthumous publication.

viernes, 13 de noviembre de 2009

Nocturno de Chile

Nocturno de Chile (Anagrama, 2009)
por Roberto Bolaño
España, 2000

"Ahora me muero, pero tengo muchas cosas que decir todavía" (11).  Así empieza la confesión de Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, un sacerdote chileno con fiebre que va a pasar las próximas 140 páginas (y un sólo párrafo) "aclarando algunos puntos" sobre su vida.  Aunque Urrutia Lacroix dice que habla con la conciencia limpia, la trayectoria de su historia nos hace creer que no es exactamente así.  Durante su larga oración febril, el cura admite haber querido ser un poeta y un crítico literario.  Recuerda conocer a Pablo Neruda en el fundo de un tal Farewell, el crítico más conocido de la época.  Más tarde, habla de sus viajes en Europa como miembro del Opus Dei.  Dice que dictó conferencias sobre el marxismo para Pinochet y sus generales.  Cerca del final, intenta disculparse por haber asistido a las tertulias a la casa de una pareja, Jimmy Thompson y María Canales, cuyo sótano funcionaba como un centro de interrogatorios de la DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional).  A pesar de la estructura minimalista de la novela (es una obra donde los silencios frecuentemente hablan con más fuerza que lo dicho), Bolaño logra crear un ambiente verdaderamente escalofriante.  El fundo de Farewell, llamado Là-bas en homenaje a la novela de Huysmans, no es la única pista. Mandado a Europa para preparar un informe sobre la destrucción de las iglesias, Urrutia Lacroix revela que la amenaza principal viene del excremento de los pájaros.  La solución, brutal y eficaz a la vez, es la de emplear aves de rapiña para cazar a las palomas (con una muestra de humor negro, el halcón de la parroquia de Burgos se llama Rodrigo).  Si es difícil ignorar los paralelos históricos con la Operación Condor establecida por Pinochet y sus secuaces, las dimensiones políticas se magnifican cuando uno se da cuenta que Thompson y su esposa probablemente están modeladas sobre el norteamericano Michael Vernon Townley, un ex agente de la CIA vinculada con DINA, y la chilena Mariana Callejas*.  "Así se hace la literatura en Chile", dice el protagonista en un momento.  "Pero no sólo en Chile, también en Argentina y en México, en Guatemala y en Uruguay, y en España y en Francia y en Alemania, y en la verde Inglaterra y en la alegre Italia.  Así se hace la literatura" (147).  Si todavía prefiero Estrella distante entre todas las novelas cortas de Bolaño que he leído hasta ahora, ya les puedo recomendar este nocturno suyo sin vacilar un momento.  Es deprimente pero rebueno.  (*Gracias a Trevor, del blog The Mookse and the Gripes, por la información sobre Mariana Callejas.

"Yo voy a releer a los griegos.  Empecé con Homero, como manda la tradición, y seguí con Tales de Mileto y Jenófanes de Colofón y Alcmeón de Crotona y Zenón de Elea (qué bueno era), y luego mataron a un general del ejército favorable a Allende y Chile restableció relaciones diplomáticas con Cuba y el censo nacional registró un total de 8.8884.768 chilenos y por la televisión empezaron a transmitir la telenovela El derecho de nacer, y yo leí a Tirteo de Esparta y a Arquíloco de Paros y a Solón de Atenas y a Hiponacte de Éfeso y a Estesícoro de Himera y a Safo de Mitilene y a Teognis de Megara y a Anacreonte de Teos y a Píndaro de Tebas (uno de mis favoritos), y el gobierno nacionalizó el cobre y luego el salitre y el hierro y Pablo Neruda recibió el Premio Nobel y Díaz Casanueva el Premio Nacional de Literatura y Fidel Castro visitó el país y muchos creyeron que se iba a quedar a vivir acá para siempre y mataron al ex ministro de la Democracia Cristiana Pérez Zujovic y Lafourcade publicó Palomita blanca y yo le hice una buena crítica, casi una glosa triunfal, aunque en el fondo sabía que era una novelita que no valía nada, y se organizó la primera marcha de las cacerolas en contra de Allende y yo leí a Esquilo y a Sófocles y a Eurípides, todas las tragedias, y a Alceo de Mitilene y a Esopo y a Hesiodo y a Heródoto (que es un titán más que un hombre), y en Chile hubo escasez e inflación y mercado negro y largas colas para conseguir comida y la Reforma Agraria expropió el fundo de Farewell y muchos otros fundos y se creó la Secretaría Nacional de la Mujer y Allende visitó México y la Asamblea de las Naciones Unidas en Nueva York y hubo atentados y yo leí a Tucídides, las largas guerras de Tucídides, los ríos y las llanuras, los vientos y las mesetas que cruzan las páginas oscurecidas por el tiempo, y los hombres de Tucídides, los hombres armados de Tucídides y los hombres desarmados, los que recolectan la uva y los que miran desde una montaña el horizonte lejano, ese horizonte en donde estaba yo confundido con millones de seres, a la espera de nacer, esa horizonte que miró Tucídides y en donde yo temblaba, y también releí a Demóstenes y a Menandro y a Aristóteles y a Platón (que siempre es provechoso), y hubo huelgas y un coronel de un regimiento blindado intentó dar un golpe y un camarógrafo murió filmando su propia muerte y luego mataron al edecán naval de Allende y hubo disturbios, malas palabras, los chilenos blasfemaron, pintaron las paredes, y luego casi medio millón de personas desfiló en una gran marcha de apoyo a Allende, y después vino el golpe de Estado, el levantamiento, el pronunciamiento militar, y bombardearon La Moneda y cuando terminó el bombardeo el presidente se suicidó y acabó todo.  Entonces yo me quedé quieto, con un dedo en la página que estaba leyendo, y pensé: qué paz".  (Nocturno de Chile, 97-99)

*Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes has kindly permitted me to link to his review of the English translation of Bolaño's novel.  Please click here for a great post on By Night in Chile.

martes, 10 de noviembre de 2009

The Decameron #1.5/10: Boccaccio for Dummies

Boccaccio (anticipating the 1970s roadie look, natch)

At the risk of offending more critically-attuned sensibilities (I feel I must apologize in advance to the likes of Amateur Reader and our good friend Emily but not to those hordes of silly bloggers who insist on calling "the classics" a "genre"), it seems to me that one's appreciation of a story really only boils down to two things: what does the writer have to say and how does he or she say it?  Everything else is fluff...or worse, "theory."  Although I've begun my own reading of The Decameron fully expecting to enjoy its stories on their own as entertainment, I'm such a dummy that I'm not sure yet what Boccaccio will have to say during the course of the work or how he will say it.  Will he be didactic, a total trickster, or a totally "didactic" trickster like his 14th-century contemporaries the Arcipreste de Hita and Chaucer?  Complicating matters, I have some basic questions going in (How important is the plague as a backdrop?  Why did Boccaccio break with poetry to set these stories down in prose?  How was a work of this size disseminated in a manuscript culture?) that even a freshman in a survey class could probably answer for me after a couple of sections.  Why share this with you here?  First, I hope to be able to answer these questions by the end of this project--thinking out loud now should help me remember better later. Second, it gives me an excuse to cite a wonderful sounding title (Guido Almansi's 1975 The Writer as Liar: Narrative Techniques in the Decameron) that has turned up as a result of my usual hastily-conducted researches.  Perhaps Almansi will be of assistance with some of these preliminary questions.  In the meantime, I'm now done reading 15 of the 100 stories in The Decameron, having just finished enjoying the infamous tale of Andreuccio da Perugia whose red light district-visiting/tomb-raiding exploits are much more "instructive" than anybody really has a right to expect.  Hey, have I told you lately what a riot this guy Boccaccio is?

sábado, 7 de noviembre de 2009

The Decameron #1/10

"No one will ever find out, and a sin that's hidden is half forgiven."  (The Decameron, 47)

I'd read the prologue and the "First Day"  from Boccaccio's Decameron (1353) before, but I read them again this week in preparation for this post.  A couple of things stood out.  First, like the unreliable narrator in Juan Ruiz' nearly contemporary Libro de Buen Amor (c. 1343), it's sometimes difficult to know when Boccaccio should be taken seriously and when he's just putting you on.  For all the talk about offering solace and instruction to his readers, for example, the Florentine lays his cad card on the table with nuggets like the following: "So in order that I may to some extent repair the omissions of Fortune, which (as we may see in the case of the more delicate sex) was always more sparing of support wherever natural strength was more deficient, I intend to provide succour and diversion for the ladies, but only for those who are in love, since the others can make do with their needles, their reels and their spindles" (3).  While this would appear to be the medieval equivalent of a frying pan joke, Boccaccio actually privileges women in terms of the composition of his cast.  "I shall narrate a hundred stories or fables or histories or whatever you choose to call them, recited in ten days by a worthy band of seven ladies and three young men, who assembled together during the plague which recently took such a heavy toll of life.  And I shall also include some songs, which these seven ladies sang for their mutual amusement" (3).  With zero background in the is he or isn't he a proto-feminist squabble, I look forward to evaluating Boccaccio's take on gender issues as I slowly make my way through The Decameron.  Secondly, whether Boccaccio's writing about the plague was based on his own eyewitness testimony or on the descriptions of others (translator G.H. McWilliam suggests it was the latter), it provides an extremely jarring backdrop for the storytelling sessions to come.  "It did not take the form it had assumed in the East," he writes on page 5, "where if anyone bled from the nose it was an obvious portent of certain death.  On the contrary, its earliest symptom, in men and women alike, was the appearance of certain swellings in the groin or the armpit, some of which were egg-shaped whilst others were roughly the size of the common apple."  Given this emphasis on the ravages of the Black Death in the "introduction" that precedes the storytelling marathon, the lighthearted nature of the first day's stories that follow provides quite the segueway.  A Jew who converts to Christianity despite the evil ways of the Pope and his clerics at Rome, a "money lender" who thinks his way out of a verbal trap laid for him by the sultan Saladin, and at least one abbot who likes the sexual position of woman on top star in the first series of ten stories about eloquence and ingenuity.  Will the horror of the plague and humor walk hand in hand throughout The Decameron or will the humor eventually win out?  I'm betting on the latter, but feel free to let me know what you think if you have a guess or an answer of your own.  In the meantime, I'm enjoying this mightily thus far!

Dante, Boccaccio...Burckhardt?

As anybody who has ever seen a Tuesday Teasers post can attest, there is indeed such a thing as too much information in the book blog world.  That being said, I guess this is still as good a place as any to state my intention to read all of Dante's Divine Comedy, Boccaccio's The Decameron, and even Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in the three months ahead.  All of my other reading in English, with the exception of Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, Petronius' Satyricon, and books two and three from Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, will have to take a back seat to this project until it's finished.  No more excuses!  A presto, amici!