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15 April 2014

Child's play

One of these lads has grown up to be my perennial pick for the Noble Prize in Literature.  Can you guess which one?

10 April 2014

The rupture of the dome of the sky

Your ripped red dress         falling on the ground
and your victorious smile   at my weakness.

Did you think that              you could escape
my hands, my looks           my crumbling desire

       at every dark and throbbing hour
       of our first last love,

       the ever-flowing fountain
       of first blood and last pulses...

       Did you think you could escape
       the rupture in the dome of the sky?

R. R. Shea

04 April 2014

Dyer conditions

A little thought from Geoff Dyer:

I find it increasingly difficult to read. This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that. The phenomenon of writer’s block is well known, but what I am suffering from is reader’s block. The condition is creeping rather than chronic, manifesting itself in different ways in different circumstances. On a trip to the Bahamas recently I regularly stopped myself reading because, whereas I could read a book anywhere, this was the only time I was likely to see sea so turquoise, sand so pink. Somewhat grandly, I call this the Mir syndrome, after the cosmonaut who said that he didn’t read a page of the book he’d taken to the space station because his spare moments were better spent gazing out of the window. Sometimes I’m too lazy to read, preferring to watch television; more often I am too conscientious to read. Reading has never felt like work in the way that writing has, and so, if I feel I should be working, I feel I should be writing. Theoretically, if I am not writing then I am free to read but, actually, I always feel vaguely guilty, and so, instead of writing (working) or reading (relaxing), I do neither: I potter around, rearranging my books, clearing up. Basically I do nothing—until it’s time to catch a train, whereupon, like a busy commuter nibbling away at War and Peace in twenty-minute snatches, I plunge into a book, thinking, At last I’ve got a chance to read. In no time, though, I’m like Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, “torn, in a futile anguished fashion, between my disinterest in the landscape and my disinterest in the book which could conceivably distract me.”
Back home there are plenty of books that I’ve not read and yet, gazing blankly at my shelves, all I can think is, There’s nothing left to read. Hoping to lance the boil, to get to the heart of the matter in the course of a transatlantic flight, I bought—but couldn’t face reading—Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. Having resigned myself to not reading them (or any of the other books I’d bought for the flight), I scavenged around for anything to read: the in-flight magazine, the duty-free catalog, the emergency evacuation procedure. And yet, at the same time that I am ready to read scraps like this, I am an overdiscriminating reader. I am always not reading something in the name of something else. The opportunity cost of reading a given book is always too great. Some books, obviously, are a waste of one’s eyes. To feel this about airport blockbusters is perfectly normal, but I feel it is beneath me to read Jeanette Winterson, for example, or Hanif Kureishi. In fact, most so-called quality fiction that is story-driven seems a waste of time (time that, by the way, I have in abundance). This would be fine if I could transpose a reluctance to read James Hawes into a willingness to read Henry James, but I am unable to get beyond the first five paragraphs (i.e., four sentences) of The Golden Bowl.
The strange thing about this is that at twenty I imagined I would spend my middle age reading books that I didn’t have the patience to read when I was young. But now, at forty-one, I don’t even have the patience to read the books I read when I was twenty. At that age I plowed through everything in the Arnoldian belief that each volume somehow nudged me imperceptibly closer to the sweetness and light. I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Moby Dick. I got through The Idiot even though I hated practically every page of it. I didn’t read The Brothers Karamazov: I’ll leave it till I’m older, I thought—and now that I am older I wish I’d read it when I was younger, when I was still capable of doing so.
Geoff Dyer, “Reader’s Block,” from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Copyright © 2011 by Geoff Dyer.

03 April 2014

Looking out the window

Looking out the window
as the last snow melts
and the newly born winds
come to erase forever
the dark nights of the soul.

I turn away,
back to you
and to the fire
and the aching purity
of these memories...

Those whispered promises?
The white surrender flags,
like the fluttering clouds
scattered by April winds
into oblivion,

into new seasons,
and the end
of seasons, of pledges,
of desires. I turn back,
looking out the window.

R. R. Shea

16 March 2014

Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis


I’m going to go out on a limb and say it: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is Jose Saramago’s greatest novel.  Can I prove such a thing?  Of course not, but then again, I can’t really prove any one novel is greater than another without extrapolating from a series of premises and theories which (arguably) have more place in academia than they do on this blog.  Even then, who’s to say?  De gustibus non est disputandum.  So, let me refine this statement: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is Jose Saramago’s most enjoyable me.  And I’m not entirely sure about even that.  Enough hemming and hawing?

In our story, poet Ricardo Reis has returned to Portugal from Brazil after his long self-imposed exile upon the death of the great writer Fernando Pessoa.  Of course, in real life, Ricardo Reis was a fictitious character, a heteronym, created by Pessoa himself.  I find it a fascinating premise to write a story where a character or made-up persona can mourn the death of his creator.  It reminds me of the claim made by Jacques Bonnet that literary characters are real while their creators are the fictions.  In the hands of a lesser writer, such a thing would devolve into little more than a literary game or slight of hand, a trifle.  But Saramago is able to create so much depth and vitality that these fictitious characters become far more real than Pessoa ever was, even though it was Pessoa who ever really drew breath and had blood pumping through his heart.  Reis and the rest are modern humans, with real concerns and feelings.  And even beyond the lives of these characters, Saramago makes the time and the setting come to life.  The sharp and heavy blade of history, especially the history of the fascism in place and to come, hangs over Lisbon and over the lives of everyone there.  Destiny is the protagonist of this book.  And Lisbon breathes.  It watches.  It conceals.

As far as plot goes, this one is pretty slight.  Then again, books like this aren’t about plot.  Sure, Reis sleeps with the help at the hotel at which he is staying.  He amuses himself in attending a meeting of fascists, he goes to carnival, he has conversations with the dead Fernando Pessoa and others, he eventually moves to a rental house.  He follows Pessoa to the grave in the end.  But really, he does nothing.  He is as still as the grey city of Lisbon, as unmoving and unchanged as the roofs and crooked streets.  Amusing then, all the talk of how he has changed when he has done no such thing.  The main feeling I took away from all of this is one of inevitability. Things change, but nothing changes.  There is emptiness, there is hope, there is despair, but it is all unmoving and unmoved.

Reis resembles that great Melville character Bartleby, who, though asked to do a great many things, responds, “I would prefer not to.”  Reis prefers not to, to remain neutral, to get by.

An excellent read.


The moon drags the waves away from shore
And out into the deep blue labyrinth
Before releasing them in reprieve once more
Like the discus flying toward Hyacinth.

A woman walks along the strand
Veil black and death’s black gown
Scrape behind her at the frigid sand
From weary eyes her tears pour down.

I’d like to speak to her a moment
To yell, to plead, to joke, to hear,
Perhaps to ask for some atonement
Or just for silence, to be near

And watch her as she makes her way
Her living presence, to wallow
In her departing life...O, stay!
But she goes where I cannot follow

The days and nights are longer.
The tide is out, the beach alone
And her phantom grows now stronger
I have her love, though she is gone

11 March 2014

The Spies

Brief Review: The Spies
 By Luis Fernando Verissimo

Beyond his literary talent, his perfect dialogue, even beyond his ability to make farce as compelling as any other genre, Luis Fernando Verissimo is funny.  It’s a dark funny, the kind earned by looking at the absurdity of the human condition and by knowing when to be reverent and when to bow to the absurd.

The Spies opens with a down-on-his luck, washed-up editor who spends his weekends arguing at a local bar with his comrades-in-failure over literature and grammar.  The reasons for such behavior are clear:

“On Saturday evenings, we would find ourselves back at the same table in the Bar Do Espanhol, where we would start getting drunk all over again and resume the same insane conversation.  It was a way of dramatizing our own inescapable mediocrity, a kind of unusual flagellation through banality.  Dubin called these endless arguments ‘Pavannes for the living dead.’”

Yet, a few pages later, Verissimo can wax almost poetic:
"It’s all over now, what the stars ordained would happen has happened, and we are innocents no longer.  Or, rather, we are not the same innocents.  Nothing can be done or undone, all that’s left is the story and our lingering guilt.  Curse us, please.  Be kind and curse us.”

The editor begins to send his companions to a far away town to investigate the source of a mysterious story being sent in to the editor in installments, and to find out if the writer of the story, a young woman of mystery, is creating a work of literature, or is seeking revenge before committing suicide.  With nods to the spy thriller and Sylvia Plath, among much else, Verissimo has written a wonderful little book, with a rushed ending redeemed by the quality of the writing.  It is translated from the Portuguese by the always amazing Margaret Jull Costa.  If fact, I would put forth that a person, supplied only with her translations, could spend day after wonderful day in literary nirvana.