16 May 2013
14 May 2013
From “Neither Saints nor Sinners,” a story by Alberto Vanasco:
“Neither the passage of time nor the incursion of motorways has managed to do away with the old boardinghouse on Montes de Oca where Basilio and Jacinto lived.”
That's a pretty solid opening line.
09 May 2013
Reading through “Celeste Goes Dancing,” a collection of Argentine short stories, I came across a story called “Javier Waconda’s Sisters,” by Fernando Sanchez Sorondo. What a masterful tale. It seems very little of the writer’s work is translated into English, which means I really do need to learn to read Spanish with a little proficiency, if for no other reason than to read more of Sanchez Sorondo. While many of the stories in the collection are outstanding, this one stands out to me for three reasons:
1.) The author’s pacing. Sanchez Sorondo uses uncertainty in the story to create tension, yet brings instances and characters into view at an almost leisurely pace. Because the reader wants the uncertainty resolved (which of the title character’s sisters has died, something he must speculate about until he can travel to his parents’ home), we eagerly plow forward. The story continually slows that progress, building tension without killing it. I think this pacing issue is a very underappreciated aspect of fiction, and often those very bad stories we read are bad particularly because of pacing. The cheap boilerplate novels of third rate scribblers feel so third rate because we go from character introduction to explosions, secret ops bases, and kung fu masters in the space of a paragraph. Uncomfortably fast pacing is usually a result of stories constituted mainly of plot, not of character or much contemplation. On the other end of the pacing spectrum, we have the navel-gazing, lethargic, bloated and self-important novels of recently graduated MFAs who have overdosed on David Foster Wallace and now try to mimic him, often with dreadful – yet amusing – results. DFW had something to say, and that something took a bit of time (much like Javier Marías in that way, if not in style), whereas these books don’t. (I fear this will be a perfect description of my writing)
2.) The prose. Gorgeous stuff. Many writers can turn a phrase or two, but every paragraph? The story is only a few pages long, yet my marginalia was nearly as long. Some things I wrote, not very literary but honest, were: “Holy shit, this is good,” and “Where the hell has this writer been all my life,” and “I need to not read this in a public place. Weeping from beauty is still frowned upon,” and “who cares about shedding manly tears. This is amazing.” I wrote some quasi-intelligent commentary too, but that’s all pretty dry and technical.
3.) The story beneath the story. Hemingway famously described his iceberg theory as one of omission, where superfluous details are left out and only the immediate actions and settings are there, leaving the reader to construct the rest of the iceberg that makes up the “whole story.” While “Javier Waconda’s Sisters” is nowhere near as sparse as a Hemingway tale, there is a great deal of the iceberg still left below the waves. One interesting aspect of this submerged portion of the tale is the disintigration of the country of Argentina, which we see falling into ruins, dying in unknown portions, as the title character travels through the land by bus. Another aspect is the relationship Waconda has with his sisters, which is hinted at in recounted memories, conjuring speculations ranging from the grotesque to the sublime.
A wonderful story. Now, to work on learning Spanish.
28 April 2013
Happy birthday, Roberto
Today, April 28th 2013, would have been Roberto Bolaño’s 60th birthday, and in his honor I am pouring through The Savage Detectives, the novel that thrust him into the higher echelons of contemporary literature. Also, I’ve been doing some sleuthing, via other blogs, to find the best Bolaño sites on the internet. But first, a quick Bolaño bio for the two people who might need it, out of the 5 or 6 who actually read this blog.
Roberto Bolaño was born on this day in Santiago, Chile, in 1953. The dyslexic offspring of a truck driver and a teacher, Bolaño felt like an outcast and so took refuge in books. His family moved to Mexico City in 1968, where he promptly dropped out of school and took up the life of a left-wing journalist and occasional vagabond. He returned to Chile in 1973, where he was briefly imprisoned before being helped to escape by two of his childhood classmates. Or so se says. Bolaño wrote poetry and traveled in South and Central America until 1977, when he moved to Europe, settling eventually near Barcelona and working an assortment of odd jobs during the day and writing at night. He eventually married and it was the birth of his first child, a son, that convinced him to pursue a marginally more lucrative career and write fiction, beginning in the early 1990s. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with a fatal liver disease, and died of liver failure on July 15th, 2003. Among his most well recieved works are 2666, The Savage Detectives, and The Insufferable Gaucho.
And now, here are, IMHO, the trinity of best Bolaño-centric sites I follow:
18 April 2013
Whenever I hear someone speak of a “layered” novel, I am often guilty of translating that term as “convoluted” or “a gimmick.” I’m happy to report that Alejandro Zambra’s new book, Ways of Going Home, is neither convoluted nor gimmicky. And, even at a crisp 139 pages, written with an exactness and brevity reminiscent of poetry, it is satisfyingly “layered.”
This Chilean novel contains two narratives, broken down into four chapters. We begin with the story of a 9 year-old boy whose crush on a teenage girl prompts him to spy on one of his neighbors for her. The second chapter switches narratives to tell of a novelist struggling with the book he is writing and attempting to reconcile with the woman that loved him. We learn quickly that the novel he is writing is actually the first chapter of this book, and that the story of the woman with whom he is trying to reconcile is very much like the story of the girl from his novel, just as the boy from his novel is very much like him. The third chapter returns to the story of the “novel” he is working on, and describes the boy and girl as older and embarking on a fling, including a trip to the boy’s parents’ house. The final chapter returns to “reality."
The ghost of the reign of Pinochet haunts the work, alluding to families broken apart, people forced to flee, bitter memories, hiding, and secrecy, but the narrative structure, the reframing of a few events - through a “novel” and a “reality” – call into question the very nature of relating any story at all. Each event from the novelists life is recast in his novel, so that a sequence emerges and we watch as the past is reshaped, constantly revised, never dead. Even seemingly trivial incidents offer enticing contemplation, such as a chat in the middle of the night between mother and son. In the novelist’s life, the mother and son talk and the son convinces the mother to smoke – something she usually only does outside – in the kitchen, telling her his father will think it is him, not her. She is persuaded. In the novel, it is the mother who suggests smoking, much more defiant and self-controled than the ‘real’ mother. And even within the same narrative, on the same page, constant revision and distortion of the past is happening. After his estranged girlfriend tells him she has been with two men since they separated, he answers:
“’But I’ve been with two women,’ I told her. The truth is it’s been only one. I lied, maybe to even the score.”
Even the nature of the protagonist(s) is somewhat uncertain. Inquiring about the nature of the novel on which the novelist is currently working, his estranged girlfriend asks him at one point: “Do they fall in love? Is it a love story?”
Beyond the rich narrative structure, the prose is beautiful, brief, and poetic. I’ll leave you with two lines:
“My mother pretended to be scandalized. The gesture looked beautiful on her.”
“To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”
15 April 2013
OK, I finished ‘The Infatuations’ and have a few things to say about it. However, some of the people who read this blog won’t have access to the book until August, when it comes out in the US, so I’m going to talk about a few individual items so as not to spoil anything. Let me start with a little advice to help with intertextuality.
Brush up on Macbeth and The Three Musketeers, and if you haven’t read it, go out at once and get Balzac’s Colonel Chabert. Don’t check it out from a library; you’re going to want to own this one. Hesperus Press has a nice version, or you could go for the French original (I did both). Are these books absolutely needed to appreciate Marías? No, but then one can appreciate impressionism without any prior knowledge of art. The prior knowledge, however, opens up the mind of the viewer and enhances the work under consideration in myriad ways. So, if you need an excuse to go out and get a few more books or to add few titles to that ever-growing book list, here it is.
“But we lawyers! We see forever the same evil feelings, never changed. Our offices are cesspools which cannot be made clean.” - from Balzac’s ‘Colonel Chambert’ (Trans. Mine)
Though not exactly a major theme, I was intrigued by the notion brought up in the novel that the everyday crimes are far more awful to contemplate than are the horrors of war. We can explain away the horrors of war as the work of a few madmen, but crimes like patricide, molestation, rape, theft, abuse, and a long litany of horrors pop up across time and place, indicating that there is something vicious and appalling in humanity itself. A woman killing a legitimate heir for the favor of a love child might worse than the ordering of the firebombing of a city because the infanticide eternally recurs with countless mothers, whereas the bombing was concocted by a small gaggle of generals in a room who are strategizing to win, or at least end, a conflict. And, by pointing this out, Marías is also touching on the basis for some of the most compelling works of literature. Tolstoy uses war in his writing, as does Shakespeare, Dumas, Flaubert and others, but the true horrors – and delights – play themselves out in the individuals acting in ways entirely recognizable (and sometimes repellant) to us.
“...the force of habit is very strong and ends up replacing or even supplanting almost everything. It can supplant love, for example, but not that state of being in love.” (Infatuations 261).
This is an interesting distinction, and covers two things very important in the novel. One is that we eventually move on with things, things we once thought we would be unable to recover from, and that new people come into our lives and by the force of their being near us and wearing away the empty spot once occupied by someone else, by the sheer force of habit, they supplant the former love. The second is that falling in love is a very different thing indeed from actually being in love.
In the end, I was right. It was a ghost story. It was a ghost story about being haunted by the past, being haunted by love, by the fallings in love, by infatuations, by past deeds, and it spoke eloquently of letting go of the past, of making peace with the past, of not being “an accursed fleur-de-lys on his shoulder, which betrays him and points the finger and prevents even the most ancient of crimes from disappearing” (345). Given Spain’s history, and the history of Julian Marías, Javier’s father, this line has added weight.
Read this at all costs. It is one of his best works, for me ranking just behind YFT and A Heart So White. A wonderful book!