domingo, 26 de marzo de 2023

Vita Nuova

Vita Nuova (Penguin Classics, 2022)
by Dante Alighieri [translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss in a dual language edition with parallel text]
Florence, c. 1292-1295

Enigmatic but somehow super interesting libello of poems and prose commentary ("somehow" because the prosimetrum format invites readers--at least readers in translation--to focus on the internal architecture of the work, its narrative arc, the would be autobiography contained within it, its author's poetic coming of age story, essentially everything but Dante's poetry in deference to his prose).  I'll certainly have my work cut out for me if I ever read it again!  For now, though, I think it'll be enough to mention a handful of things that stood out to me.  As Virginia Jewiss conveniently points out in her introduction, "The essential, unsettling claim of the Vita Nuova is this: Beatrice, a real woman from Florence, is also a miracle, a disruptive, divine force who intervenes in [Dante's] life, causing him to think, to write, and to love in new ways.  And, miracle that she is, she continues to do so after she dies, disrupting even the finality of death" (viii).  The potential sacrilege of this conceit aside, the way Dante chooses to approach it in the context of traditional love poetry is jarring in the extreme.  In Chapter 3, for example, he shares a vision in which a "lordly figure" persuades the dream version of Beatrice, described as "naked save for a loosely wrapped crimson cloth," to eat Dante's "burning" heart before ascending to heaven with her.  Even accepting the lordly figure as the personification of Love and allowing leeway for the poet to operate freely in the symbolic realm, the impact of the imagery still seems almost Book of Revelation visionary to me--not at all what was expected.  As odd as the combination of religious and love poetry here can be at times, though, the Vita Nuova also provides ample evidence that Dante knew how to up the ante.  In Chapter 7, he explains that he wrote a sonnet in which his intent was to "call on Love's faithful with the words of the prophet Jeremiah, 'O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite e videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus,' and to beg them to listen to me."  The allusion, which Jewiss attributes to Lamentations 1:12 and translates as "All you who pass along the way, stay here a while, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow" (21), is a fine example of Dante's intertextual dexterity insofar as the translation of the verse into his sonnet ("You who journey on the path of Love,/stay here a while and see/if there be any grief as great as mine" ["O voi che per la via d'Amor passate,/attendete e guardate/s'egli è dolore alcun, quanto 'l mio, grave"]) foreshadows the lovesick poet's illness-inspired dream in Chapter 23 where presentiments of Beatrice's death find "strange and horrible faces" telling Dante that "you are dead" while "birds in flight fell dead from the sky, and the earth quaked" as an apocalyptic preliminary to the canzone that follows.  When Beatrice later does die within the timeline of the work as recounted in Chapter 28, Dante claims that a Lamentations 1:1 allusion he had just written into his canzone ("Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!  facti est quasi vidua domina gentium" [Jewiss: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people!  How like a widow has she become!"]) was interrupted by the announcement of her death.  He then expresses his grief in first prose and then poetry equally powerfully: "Once she had departed from this world, the entire city was like a widow, stripped of all her dignity" ["Poi che fue partita da questo secolo, rimase tutta la sopradetta cittade quasi vedova dispogliata da ogni dignitade"] (Chapter 30); "These eyes, which weep in pity for my heart/have shed so many mournful, plaintive tears/they ache with sorrow but can cry no more" ["Li occhi dolenti per pietà del core/hanno di lagrimar sofferta pena,/sí che per vinti son rimasi omai"] (Chapter 31).  The poet's emotions, almost palpable to a reader even several hundred years after they were set down in writing, require no gloss but form a strange kind of coda to the famous earlier Chapter 25 in which Dante verses on the differences between the Latin poets and the vernacular poets and how the recent rise of vernacular poetry in Provençal and Italian, "the languages of oc and of sì," was due in Italy at least to the fact that "the first to begin writing poetry in the vernacular was moved by the desire to make his words understood by a woman who found Latin verses hard to understand."  Wild.

La visione: Dante e Beatrice
(Ary Scheffer, 1845)

domingo, 19 de marzo de 2023

Los sorrentinos

Los sorrentinos (Sigilo, 2022)
por Virginia Higa
Argentina, 2018

"El Chiche Vespolini era el menor de cinco hermanos, dos varones y dos mujeres.  Su verdadero nombre era Argentino, pero le decían así porque de chico era tan lindo y simpático que se había convertido en 'el chiche de sus hermanas'.  Los Vespolini se habían instalado en Mar del Plata a principios de 1900 y siempre habían tenido hoteles y restaurantes.  De su familia el Chiche había heredado la Trattoria Napolitana: el primer restaurante en el mundo en servir sorrentinos".

Así empieza Los sorrentinos, de Virginia Higa (Bahía Blanca, 1983), una novela divertida basada en un retrato de familia convertido en ficción al estilo de Natalia Ginzburg o algo así (tengo entendido que el Chiche era el tío bisabuelo de nuestra autora).  Si no está claro dónde se encuentra la línea entre la realidad y la ficción dentro de la novela, me da igual porque me gustó la filosofía culinaria del Chiche (dos máximas suyas: "Cada pasta tiene su personalidad" y "La cocina del sur de Italia es la unión perfecta entre lo alto y lo popular" [12 y 52]) tanto como el excéntrico elenco de personajes (por ejemplo, el primo Ernesto, de ragazzo casi adoptado por un tal Máximo Gorki durante una visita a Italia, solía lamentar "Yo podría haber sido un bolchevique" durante las sobremesas familiares [35]) además del sentido de humor de varias personas vinculadas con o la familia o la trattoria ("Las cocineras y las camareras decían que Valdemar era buen mozo, 'un churrasco'.  Carmela no estaba de acuerdo: 'Para churrasco le sobra un poco de grasa'" [124-125]).  Por su parte, Higa demuestra un toque ligero alternando entre lo anecdótico y el lado nostálgico de las cosas.  También me interesó el léxico familiar de los Vespolini ("Entre ellos hablaban en lengua napolitana" [32]) y la manera en que el asunto de la "italianidad" de todos estos marplatenses podría expresarse en insultos ("¡Catrosha, no digas papocchias!" [74]) o preguntas sencillas ("¿Te acordás de cuando éramos imperio?  ¡Qué grande era el emperador Augusto!" [19]) con igual facilidad.  Genial.

Virginia Higa
(foto: Bernardino Avila)

lunes, 13 de marzo de 2023

Melmoth the Wanderer

Melmoth the Wanderer (Oxford University Press, 2008)
by Charles Maturin
Ireland, 1820

Melmoth the Wanderer, the sprawling 500-plus page Gothic classic that threatened to bore me into submission at times before its next level weirdness eventually won the day, was finally crossed off my TBR list late last week.  What a fucked-up novel!  A series of nested tales about the tempter-like title character who's made some sort of a pact with evil to add 150 years of life to his span of time on earth until/unless he can find another victim to buy out his contract--a supernatural Ponzi scheme of sorts--the novel is splayed out on an oversized canvas rife with colorful anticlericalism, settings which include Inquisition jail cells and ruined monasteries, a malevolent sense of humor, unwanted arranged marriages ("I will first be the bride of the grave" [374]), even an unexpected love story or two.  I almost forgot to mention its mean streak.  At its gentlest, the anticlericalism takes the form of one narrator's ribbing of an indolent priest for his yawning response to the apparent abduction of a bride to be in the bourgeois Spanish household he's assigned to.  First Fra Jose asks for some wine "to slake the intolerable thirst caused by my anxiety for the welfare of your family."  Then, in a follow-up worthy of Eça de Queirós, he adds: "It were not amiss, daughter...if a few slices of ham, or some poignant sausages, accompanied the wine--it might, as it were, abate the deleterious effects of that abominable liquor, which I never drink but on emergencies like these" (506).  Poignant sausages, a delicious archaism!  For another splash of anticlericalism which leads to a quaff of a more potent sort of humor, one need only revisit the chapter where a man condemned by the Inquisition shrieks in horror--what he refers to as "the only human sound ever heard within the walls of the Inquisition" (239)--only to be saved by a fire that breaks out where he's being held shortly afterward.  The spiritual punchline, such as it is, comes with the comment that all the appeals to the saints to help prevent the catastrophe went unheeded: "Their exclamations were so loud and earnest, that really the saints must have been deaf, or must have felt a particular predilection for a conflagration, not to attend to them" (241).  Another interesting example of the work's malevolent sense of humor is that even nature seems to be troubled by the presence of the Wanderer.  At a key moment late in the novel while Melmoth is finishing off one character in the dead of night, the text tells us that "the wave groaned [and] the dark hill groaned in answer, like murderers exchanging their stilled and midnight whispers over their work of blood--and all was silent" (391). Of course, the novel's mean streak, seemingly so ahead of its time, is really something else.  It often comes in the person of the title character whose "superhuman misanthropy" (303) makes him a spiritual ancestor of the shapeshifting villain in Lautréamont's 1868-69 Maldoror.  "Beauty was a flower he looked on only to scorn," we are told, "and touched only to wither" (360).  Attempting to woo the innocent Immalee, for example, Melmoth makes an extended comparison between the music of the spheres and the suffering that awaits millions of humans in his fevered imagination.  "Dream of the music of those living orbs turning on their axis of fire for ever and ever," Melmoth exults, "and ever singing as they shine, like your brethren the Christians, who had the honour to illuminate Nero's garden in Rome on a rejoicing night."  Immalee, ill at ease with the allusion to ancient Christians as human torches: "You make me tremble!"  Melmoth, undeterred: "The eternal roar of a sea of fire makes a profound bass to the chorus of millions of singers in torture!" (351).  At other times, the mean streak surfaces when Melmoth is only a lurking presence to the action.  There's a story late in the novel in which a family becomes so down on its luck that it's reduced to famine.  One child considers prostituting herself to help feed the family, another sells his blood to the point where he's on the verge of death.  The novel's multiple narrators, keen on making comparisons between their descriptions and works of figurative art, seize the moment to explain how Everhard "lay, as Ines approached his bed, in a kind of corse-like beauty, to which the light of the moon gave an effect that would have rendered the figure worthy the pencil of a Murillo, a Rosa, or any of those painters, who, inspired by the genius of suffering, delight in representing the most exquisite of human forms in the extremity of human agony."  This description, suffice it to say, isn't over the top enough for our sadistic narrator who proceeds to compare the now blue-lipped Everhard to "a St Bartholomew flayed, with his skin hanging about him in graceful drapery--a St Laurence, broiled on a gridiron, and exhibiting his finely-formed anatomy on its bars, while naked slaves are blowing the coals beneath it" to hammer home the point that "the snow-white limbs of Everhard were extended as if for the inspection of a sculptor, and moveless, as if they were indeed what they resembled, in hue and symmetry, those of a marble statue" (421-422).  Maturin, you had me at "corse-like beauty"!  Anyway, next level weirdness indeed but thank the deity figure that I finally made time for all these "criminals of the imagination" (250) as "the clock of eternity is about to strike" (540).

Charles Maturin (1780-1824)

domingo, 5 de marzo de 2023