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23 December 2012

a little religious art

Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’

Though I’m not religious, I do enjoy religious art.  Such art is inescapable when viewing the western masterpieces of the last thousand years.  In particular, I’ve always enjoyed Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity,” though perhaps for all the wrong reasons.  Yes, the depiction of the trinity is nice.  I am impressed with the use of perspective.   

The use of the arch as a framing device really is clever.  The artist’s use of the people in the fresco to form a pyramid is pleasing to the eye.  But, these things aren’t what interest me.  Mary’s eyes interest me, as does the tomb at the bottom of the work, an image rarely shown in art books.  Here is a common art book image of the work:

The ‘Holy Trinity’ was painted on an inside wall of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence in the year 1424.  The central figure is of Christ on the cross, head still held up.  Perhaps has not yet breathed his last, but his eyes are closed and the direction of his gaze, if he has just closed his eyes, is down and to his right, focused on his mother.  Christ’s outstretched arms and, more specifically, the very visible nails, combine with the empty space behind and Christ’s legs and feet to form an inverted pyramid within the pyramid of the figures.   

Above Christ looms the image of god the father.  Between the two, a dove hovers, representing the holy spirit.   

The two patrons of this fresco, a prominent married couple of Florence, are depicted and praying on the very outer corners of the images, looking at each other.  It is interesting to note that they are stationed outside the inner building, framed by pillars, as if they reside outside of this sacred space.  

 Inside the sacred space, on Christ’s left, St. John looks at the trinity with hands clasped.  On his right is Christ’s mother, Mary.  And where is she looking?   

She is the only person in the painting who is actually looking at us.  She looks mournful, and resigned.  Her right hand is outstretched toward her son on the cross.  This is her sacrifice to the viewer as much as it is God’s sacrifice.  In terms of Catholic theology, this is a display of Mary as a gateway between humans and the divine.  She is inviting us in to partake of salvation.  As a secular viewer, I find it a poignant image of a mother making sense of the loss of her son.  Her eyes, at once sad, resigned, and yet self-assured, are haunting.

In 1860, the image was transferred to canvas during renovations and in the process, for mysterious reasons, a key part of the image was neglected.   

At the bottom of the original fresco was the image of a tomb, and a skeleton inside.  The inscription above the skeleton reads “IO FU[I] G[I]A QUEL CHE VOI S[I]ETE E QUEL CH['] I[O] SONO VO[I] A[N]C[OR] SARETE" (I once was what you are and what I am you also will be), the sentiments of a ‘memento mori’ tomb.  It is unclear if the omission of this part of the fresco was intentional or not, but it was plastered over after the rest of the image was transferred and moved to another part of the church.  I’ve found the idea of death comforting because it reminds us of how limited our time is, and how precious.  I imagine this tomb at the bottom of the trinity also enforced the idea of life as a transitory enterprise for the renaissance viewer, even as it promised a salvation after death.

30 November 2012

November books and sickness


Well, this has been the slowest reading month of my adult life.  At the beginning of the month, I came down with a double ear infection and a sinus infection.  These infections were causing havoc with my vision.  Unfortunately, I decided to go to a ‘Minute Clinic’ instead of to my physician.  Bad choice.  I was given limited antibiotics, and the infections came back stronger than ever mid-month.  With a weakened immune system, I contracted pink eye in both eyes and a nasty cough.  It was time to go to the doctor, the real doctor.  I was informed that, in addition to the pink eye, the ear infections, and the raging sinus infection, I now had a pretty serious case of bronchitis.  I’ve been mostly homebound this last week, being looked after by my amazing wife and taking medications.  Finally, I feel like I am on the mend.  For a few weeks, I felt like I was on a circus ride and I just couldn’t get off.  Round and round I went.  All of this has me thinking that a.) I have the most amazing family who take such good care of me and b.) I am extremely fortunate to only be sick with a very treatable illness and to have such ready access to medical care.  This month was nothing more than a “first-world problem.”

And now to the books.  I finally began reading from my selections for the ‘Argentinean Literature of Doom’ reading challenge, which is hosted here (go to the site no matter what, because it is one of the best personal blogs on good literature around).  I will have full reviews (something this page has sorely lacked) of Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel and Roberto Bolaño’s Woes of the True Policeman in the next few days, health and energy permitting.  Here is the book list for November:

The Wisdom of Psychopaths  by  Kevin Dutton
Travels with Epicurus  by  Daniel Klein
Woes of the True Policeman  by  Roberto Bolaño
The Tunnel  by  Ernesto Sábato
Tierra del Fuego  by  Francisco Coloane

13 November 2012

Javier on his writing

A little clip for you here where Marías reads a few lines (from A Heart So White) and talks about his writing.

03 November 2012

Books read in October

Here are the books read this past month.  The end of the year is coming, and I'm toying with a 'Best Books of the Year' post with multiple authors giving short reviews.  More on that to come, and let me know if you would be interested in writing a few words on your favorite book this year.


The Book of Disquiet  by  Fernando Pessoa
The Man without Qualities (vol.1)  by  Robert Musil
Written Lives  by  Javier Marías
Requiem: a hallucination  by  Antonio Tabucchi
Chicken with Plums  by  Marjane Satrapi
The Good Cripple  by  Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Tales of Moonlight and Rain  by  Akinari Ueda
The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains  by  Nicholas Carr
Beach Birds  by  Severo Sarduy
The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira  by  Cesar Aira
If Walls Could Talk: an intimate history of the home  by  Lucy Worsley
The Blind Owl  by  Sadegh Hedayat

My first encounter with Hedayat will not be my last, as Blind Owl was a wonderful book.  The hallucinatory quality paired well with Tabucchi's amusing jaunt and meditation around Lisbon.  The biggest disappointment of the month comes from The Good Cripple, though I suspect much of that has to do with the translation.  While it is important to keep a slight taste of the foreign nature of the original in translation, retaining entire -albeit well known - Spanish phrases for no observable purpose seems ridiculous to me.   Why not use 'friend' instead of 'amigo?'  Why keep 'adios' for 'goodbye' or 'hola' for hello?  The liberal sprinkling of such tripe throughout saturated the work as a whole, making an interesting story come across as told by a Latino stereotype out of central casting.

Happy reading

25 October 2012

Javier sticks to his guns

Javier Marías has been awarded – and has subsequently rejected - Spain’s national narrative prize for his novel, Los enamoramientos (The Infatuations).  Marías has stated for decades that awards given by governments, especially by his in Spain, come with a level of politics and tainting he cannot stomach, and also objects to prizes where the money is taken from taxes or fees imposed by governments on the people.  On a more personal level, the Spaniard relates that many of his literary heroes and masters, including his father, were ignored for the prize for less worthy recipients, noting that “if they weren’t given it, why should I be given it.”

19 October 2012

And Richard Shea on NPR

Well, in a moment of weakness, it seems the good folks at NPR and the Paris Review have decided they like a short story of mine.  Here it is:

14 October 2012

Javier Marías at the BBC

The BBC World Service's 'World Book Club' recently selected Marías's "A Heart So White" as the book of the month.  Here is a link to the interview wherein the author answers questions from a world-wide audience:

10 October 2012

And the winner will be...

Javier Marías should win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’m just not sure it will happen this year.

Now that betting agencies have increased wagering on one of the most prestigious prizes in the world, I thought it time to attempt my own prognostications.  Let me put aside my personal favorite and make a prediction (probably a wrong one):

Either Chinua Achebe or Salman Rushdie will be the surprise winner announced in 15 hours out of Stockholm.  You heard it here first.

(Addendum: Chinese writer Mo Yan has this morning been awarded the prize, keeping my streak of horribly inaccurate predictions intact.)

02 October 2012

Books read in September

Another month, another 10 books.  Here they are:

Selected Prose  by  Fernando Pessoa
The Book of Embraces  by  Eduardo Galeano
Renaissance Lives  by  Theodore Rabb
The Insufferable Gaucho  by  Roberto Bolaño
Last Evenings on Earth  by  Roberto Bolaño
The Voyage to the Island of the Articoles  by  Andre Maurois
The Horses of St Marks  by  Charles Freeman
Asleep in the Sun  by  Adolfo Bioy Casares
The Ball  by  John Fox
The Cardboard House  by  Martín Adán

17 September 2012

From my brief personal encyclopedia of imagined writers and artists.

Álvaro Hartmann (b. Buenos Aires 1950)

Quite a few things are known about the Argentine writer Álvaro Hartmann, but very few of them are true.  The bare details of his life– that he was born in 1950 in Buenos Aires to an immigrant German mechanic and his native wife, that he only had two fingers on his left hand, that he was a fencing prodigy (with his right hand) who was picked to represent his country at the Munich Olympics of 1972, that he instead ran away to Paris with a nightclub singer known on the streets as La Boca, the mouth (a nickname gained through more than just her singing voice), that he wrote over 20 novels, and that he returned to Buenos Aires in 1990 alone, sad, and half blind from syphilis - are all true.  But the details of his involvement with a ring of bicycle thieves, the incident recounted by malicious gossips that he once showed up at a party in nothing but his socks, and his supposed love of birds are greatly exaggerated, as I learned first hand.
I met him the first time at the Jockey Club, ...

10 September 2012

The Codex Came

This came for me on library loan, so I'll be spending three weeks getting a good look at it:

Take a gander 

Blog posts to come

31 August 2012

August reading list

Here are the books finished in August, putting me over 100 for the year so far.  Record pace.

A Wicked Company  by  Philipp Blom
Javier Marías’s Debt to Translation  by  Gareth Wood
Deceit, Desire, and the Novel  by  René Girard
In Her Absence  by  Antonio Muñoz Molina
The Body Artist  by  Don DeLillo
Love Songs of the New Kingdom  by  J.L. Foster
The Duck that Won the Lottery  by  Julian Baggini
Swann’s Way  by  Marcel Proust
Monsieur Pain  by Roberto Bolaño
On Elegance While Sleeping  by  Emilio Lascano
A little Larger than the Entire Universe  by  Fernando Pessoa
The Following Story  by  Cees Nooteboom
Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles
Lady Chatterley’s Brother by Esposito and Hathcock

17 August 2012

Proust Postponement


So, I had planned on reading all of Proust in the next few months, but then I discovered that 2013 is the Year of Reading Proust, so I am considering stopping after “Swann’s Way” and finishing the year with another monster of world literature, the "Man without Qualities.I’m nearly done with “Swann,” and am both exhausted and refreshed, if such things are possible.  I’ll have to ponder this.

05 August 2012

A little bit on love

Here is a little love poetry from antiquity.  I don’t have the hieroglyphs for the first one, but I found it moving.  The Greek poem by Sappho and the Latin one by Catullus are related, the latter modeling his on the former.  All translations and modernizations, except the first poem, are my own.  I’m trying to avoid the grammar school word for word version, so forgive the exactness in favor of the flavor I have tried to match.

Here is the Egyptian:

To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
     I draw life from hearing it.
     Could I see you with every glance,
     It would be better for me
     Than to eat or to drink.

     (Translated by M.V. Fox)

Here is Sappho:

φάινεταί μοι κῆνοσ ἴσοσ τηέοισιν
ἔμμεν ὤνερ ὄστισ ἐναντίοσ τοι
ἰζάνει καὶ πλασίον ἀδυ
     φωνεύσασ ὐπακούει
καὶ γαλαίσασ ἰμμερόεν τὸ δὴ ᾽μάν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόασεν,
ὠσ γὰρ εὔιδον βροχέωσ σε, φώνασ
     οὐδὲν ἔτ᾽ ἔικει,
ἀλλὰ κάμ μὲν γλῳσσα ϝέαγε, λέπτον
δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδὲν ορημ᾽,
     ἐπιρρόμβεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι.
ἀ δέ μ᾽ ί᾽δρωσ κακχέεται, τρόμοσ δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίασ
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾽ ὀλιγω ᾽πιδεύϝην
     φαίνομαι [ἄλλα].

(That one appears to me the equal of the gods,
the man who, facing you,
is seated and – so near – listens
to your sweet voice.

And you laugh your sexy laugh, making
My heart flutter in my chest, because at
each glance I immediately lose
the ability to say anything

Silence pounds my tongue, and
At once fire pours beneath my skin
With my eyes, I see nothing
Through buzzing ears, I hear nothing

Cold sweat dribbles down me, a shiver
Quivers through me, and I am pale
Green as grass, and I seem almost...
Almost ...dead.)

Catullus has translated this poem into Latin, adding much.  There is a portion missing, put here into brackets, a line which I have many an idea about, including a half-hearted notion that there is nothing there at all.  Here is the Latin:

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
     spectat et audit
dulce ridentem, misero quod omnes
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
     <vocis in ore;>
lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures geminae, teguntur
     lumina nocte.
otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
     perdidit urbes.

Though very similar, Catullus has added a few ideas of his own.  The first one of interest is on the second line, superare divos (he is not only equal to the gods, he is greater than the gods).  Line 7 has a direct address, Lesbia, fitting given both Catullus’s poetic program and the nature of the inspiration of this poem.  The Roman reader, well-versed in the Greek of the original,  expects the next line, vocis in ore, but that part of the manuscript is missing.  The phrase means ‘voice in my mouth,’ completing the idea that “there is no more voice in my mouth.”  Intentional or not, it is rather amusing that ‘voice in my mouth’ is literally missing in the poem, not just missing in the poetic sense.  The last four lines are significantly different from Sappho’s poem , and I render them here as:

Leasure, Catullus, harms you, in
Leasure you revel and desire too much
Leasure has, previously, both kings
And wealthy cities destroyed.

I’ve pushed the word ‘leasure’ to the beginning, as has the Latin, to show the stress in this particular contemplation.  For Sappho, love has made her sick.  For Catullus, it is the leisure in which to contemplate such love that has caused misery, as it always has.

So, three love poems from three different civilizations of antiquity, all of them as fresh as ever.

02 August 2012

On fear

(Warning: this post may have some political overtones)

In Plato’s Laches, Socrates is questioning the Athenian general Laches about – among other things – the very essence of bravery.  What does it mean to be courageous?  Old war horse that he is, Laches has a ready definition:
                        ο μ τν Δία, Σώκρατες, ο χαλεπν επεν: ε γάρ τις θέλοι ν τ τάξει μένων μύνεσθαι τος πολεμίους κα μ φεύγοι, ε σθι τι νδρεος ν εη (190e)
                        (By Zeus, Socrates, that isn’t difficult.  For if anyone in the ranks is willing to stand and fight against the enemy and not flee, you may well permit he is courageous.)  -trans. mine

Socrates is quick to dispatch such simplistic notions of courage, pointing out examples of soldiers who have retreated wisely so as to win the war, even if they flee the battle.  The dialog continues for a bit with more input before it ends in aporia as the group disperses to think more on the subject.

This post is about fear, specifically modern fear dressed in Western garb, but I thought it might be useful to first mention bravery.  There is a notion held by many that the brave person is the one who has no fear, the soldier who crashes through the enemy lines without fear of harm, the Olympic athlete so self-assured of victory that the contemplation of defeat never occurs, the circus performer who puts his or her head in the mouth of the lion.  But these notions are misplaced.  The one who feels no fear when performing a task we mere mortals might find daunting, as opposed to the same person who does such tasks despite fear, is not brave, but instead confident, unconcerned, uncritical, or a combination of the three.  In order to show bravery, one must act despite fear.  Bravery is the overcoming of fear, the mastery of fear, not the mindless standing in the ranks and awaiting death under old Laches.  In other words, some fear, a healthy amount of fear, is natural and it may perhaps be beneficial.  Fear of wild animals, the cold, and the dark unknown might once have spurred our caveman ancestors to build fires at night.  The fear of the obliteration of a person’s existence has driven countless artists to leave behind something more permanent than their bones.  In other animals, it is fear that often keeps them alive.  The sheep is skittish because it fears the wolf, and so it must to escape from the jaws of death. 

So what can we say about fear?  There are as many adages on fear as there are snowflakes in a blizzard.  Shakespeare, Cervantes, sacred texts, and modern pop culture are filled with advice, whether it be to fear not, that the only thing to fear is fear itself, or that fear can be wise.  Shakespeare braces us against fear in Julius Caesar, reminding us that “Cowards die many times before their deaths/ The valiant never taste of death but once.”  “Fear has many eyes and can see underground,” says Cervantes.  Worf, everyone’s favorite Klingon, is parroting centuries of real-world wisdom when he growls that “Only fools have no fear.”  But perhaps my favorite quote on fear, and the one I have in mind here, was written by the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig:

“Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. What is most absurd suddenly seems the most probable.”

Two articles from today’s newspaper remind me how true these words are.  Let’s start with tragedy, so that we can end in farce.

A week ago, in Colorado, a heavily armed and armor clad gunman opened fire in a theater playing the newest ‘Batman’ movie, killing over a dozen and wounding scores of people.  The stories from this horrific event have been disturbing, disgusting, and – in cases of people who tried to help others during the attack, inspiring.  The young lady who stayed in the aisle and stemmed her friend’s bleeding, despite the fear and extreme likelihood of herself being shot, or the tale of the man who shielded his girlfriend with his own body, losing his life in the bargain, are stunning examples of the very essence of courage.  No matter the frequency of public acts of violence, it is always shocking...and fear inducing.  It makes us think about the frailty of human existence.  Unfortunately, it also leads us to irrational conclusions.

The shooting has had a decided economic impact on ticket sales, one that illustrates Zweig’s observation.  In the wake of the tragedy, many people expressed a fear of going to the movies at all, afraid that it could just as easily happen to them.  Ticket sales in North America dropped 60 percent the day after the shooting, and though figures begin to rebound, many people recently polled still expressed reservations about attending the movie because of fear of another crazed act of violence.  While death certainly can happen to anyone at any time, people let a horrific – yet fairly isolated – event dictate their choices.  Of course, many people just weren’t in the mood to go see the flick because they found it might be distasteful or they weren’t in the mood for violent gun battle knowing a real one had happened during the movie.  Still, many people were afraid to go.  I’m not saying people shouldn’t be wary of being killed when they go see ‘The Dark Night,’ I’m saying they are afraid for all the wrong reasons.  On opening night, before the effect of the shooting on sales, 100 million people worldwide went to see the movie, nearly 30 million here in the US.  If there had been another Aurora, or two more Auroras, 26 more people would die going to see a movie.  So, the odds of dying in a shooting by a at the hands of a crazed gunman in a theater if there were more crazed gunmen out there with the very same idea or with copycat ideas: more than one in a million.  However, most of those people here in the US traveled to the theater in cars.  But, if only half of them came to the movie in cars, and there were two people per car – both highly unlikely situations – then five million cars were on the road traveling to see the film.  Chances of dying in a car accident: 1 in 6500.  Of course, the odds go down when you localize the event, but you get the idea.  The very act of driving to see the movie holds countless more perils than being in the theater itself.  I’m not saying that what happened wasn’t incredibly tragic and worrisome; I’m saying that fear should be placed where it is most appropriate.  Shakespeare’s dictum above needs heeding in this instance.

And now to farce, by which I mean Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s recent McCarthy-like ravings about the threat of covert radical Muslims secretly working for Hilary Clinton, serving in congress, etc. etc. etc., and the fear by some of my less informed fellow citizens about all Muslims.   

The fears of ‘creeping Sharia’ and the construction of mosques – both of which terrify Bachmann and the rest of the tinfoil hat brigade - should be chalked up to ignorance, misinformation, or stupidity.  But, let us just take the fear of dying at the hands of a Muslim extremist, or more properly labeled, an extremist.  Combining the events of September 11th , all US casualties in Islamic countries in the last decade (countries we went into), and shootings of Americans by Muslims, we’ve lost about 8000 of our countrymen and women.  This is a tragic figure to be sure, but is it one to cause such unbridled fear?  In short, no.  The US has a population of 311 million people.  So the odds of being killed by a Muslim are about 1 in 36,000, but that must be weighed against the likelihood of you serving in a war zone.  The odds of you being killed by a Muslim whilst in the US are about 1 in 80,000.  The odds go way up if you are serving a tour in Iraq.  That said, it is actually much more dangerous to be an Iraqi in Iraq, and the chances of being killed by a Christian are much higher in that country (and given that most murderers in this country are of the Christian faith – though they certainly don’t act like it – it is much more likely that you will be murdered by a Christian here as well).   Iraq has a population of 33 million people.  In the last decade, US led troops – predominately Christian in religious orientation – have killed between 66,000 and 120,000 CIVILIANS and another 60,000 to 250,000 combatants.  Odds of an innocent Iraqi being killed by one of ours, using the most charitable figure: 1 in 500.  But let’s look beyond the current ill-advised excursion in the sand.  Whilst Michele might be trembling over that man walking to worship in his mosque, she should be much more concerned about her FABulous husband, Marcus (Note:  I'm a vocal supporter for marriage equality, making Dr. Bachmann an especially deplorable character to me).   

While the odds of being killed in a jihad are incredibly, astoundingly rare, the odds of being killed by a loved one are not.  The odds of a murder being at the hands of a loved one: 1 in 6.  The odds that you will be murdered: 1 in a hundred.  So, there is a 1 in 600 chance that Marcus or another family member is going to do away with poor little Michele, and a 1 in 80,000 chance it will be at the hands of a Muslim extremist cruising through the backwaters of Minnesota or DC.  This is the classic manifestation of Zweig’s quotation, a type of ignorant xenophobia masquerading as some sort of legitimate concern.

Be afraid, very afraid...just don’t let that fear lead you to preposterous, debilitating, retrobate conclusions.

31 July 2012

Books read in July

Another month, and 15 more books down.  Expect things to come to a trickle as I make my way through the entirety of Proust.

Here's what I read in July:
Barça  by  Graham Hunter
The Mystery Guest  by  Grégoire Bouillier
The Lights of Home  by  Jason Weiss
Being Dead by  Jim Crace
Thousand Cranes  by  Yasunari Kawabata
Bad Nature, or Elvis in Mexico  by  Javier Marías
A Little History of Philosophy  by  Nigel Warburton
The Prince of Mist  by  Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Blow-up and other stories  by  Julio Cortázar
Les Miserables (stepping stones version with my daughter)
A Tale of Two Lions  by  Roberto Ransom
Bambert’s book of missing stories  by  Reinhardt
Chronicle of a Death Foretold  by  Gabriel García Márquez
Soul of the Age  by  Jonathan Bate
How to read a novel  by  John Sutherland

25 July 2012

awaiting her destiny

She heard the bear clawing at the door to the library, the place where her tutor used to read to her when she was a little girl growing up in this old hacienda.  Those days of childhood had dried up and the only things remaining were the tattered rooms of the great house, a library of dusty books, and the bear.  The bear was hungry.

She had shoved the green couch in front of the door when she first heard the roar of the great beast as it ambled through the halls, past the neglected skeleton of the manservant, and began to hunt for food.  It had eaten everything else.  In the minutes before the bear smelled her and came for her, she had piled up as many books on the couch as she could, trying to weigh it down, to prevent the creature from slamming down the door with its enormous paw.  And now she watched as, with each thud of the bear against the door, the couch jumped an inch and a sliver of light sliced through, getting bigger with each strike.  The wood was cracking.  The hinges were pulling away from the frame.  The door would only hold another minute, and then the bear would be inside the library.

She turned and looked out the broken windowpane at the fountain.  It was there, when the fountain had flowed, years ago now, where she had made her pact with Julian.  A distant, faded season of love, now gone.  Another blow from the bear.  The sound of the door splintering.  The smell of the beast.  She looked out at the fountain.  She waited.

18 July 2012

Book Milestone

There are now over 3000 books in my personal library, taking up much of the bottom floor of the house.  Do I get some sort of plaque for that?

06 July 2012

On a statue of Federico García Lorca

In a Madrid plaza, Federico García Lorca stands
In stone, a stone dove flutters in his hands
And tourists take their snapshots

The real García Lorca, the flesh and bone man, was shot
And his body tossed in an unknown ditch to rot
And fertilize the flowers of modern Spain

And in that statuary plaza in Madrid, in Castilian sun and rain
A leftist daily puts a red ribbon round the statue-neck in vain
As a Fascist daily cuts the ribbon down

In two gestures by old guards who plant and resurrect him from the ground
García Lorca smiles as the old war rages with neither blood nor sound
And the birds shit on his statuary head

The people want to rescue Lorca’s body and put it with the noble dead
But can’t remember what patch of flowered earth became his bed
And so reverently clean the birdshit off his statue head

For what is dead is dead, and cannot be undead, and memories remain instead
In the gestures of the old guards who put and cut the ribbon near his head
That noble ribbon, taken at night and in the morning glowing red

R. R. Shea

01 July 2012

Books read in June

I seem to be on record pace this year.

June's reading:
2666  by  Roberto Bolaño
Helena, or the sea in summer  by  Julian Ayesta
King Cophetua by Julien Gracq
The Garden of Secrets by Juan Goytisolo
The Skating Rink  by  Roberto Bolaño
A Land so Strange  by  Andrés Reséndez
Rivers of Gold  by  Hugh Thomas
Borges and the Eternal Orangutans  by  Luís Fernando Veríssimo
The General in his Labyrinth  by  Gabriel García Márquez
Trés  by  Roberto Bolaño
Dark Back of Time  by  Javier Marías
The Return  by  Roberto Bolaño
The Solitudes by Luis de Góngora
The Notebook  by  José Saramago
The Walk  by  Robert Walser

26 June 2012

Spending a litle time on time


Einstein, pondering what a beam of light would look like if one were to catch up to it, and what would happen to time once you had caught it, came up with the notion of the flexibility of time.  To greatly simplify things, the faster you move, the slower time goes.  So, if you were to fly at near the speed of light, time would virtually stop.  To put this is in a more realistic way, if you were to ride a fighter jet from LA to Boston at top speed, you would be fractionally ahead in time (and younger) than anyone who hadn’t traveled at such a speed.  Therefore every time you fly, drive, or move, and someone else does not, you are traveling through time at a different speed.  You, my friend, are a time traveler.

This brings up a rather interesting thought experiment:  Imagine I told you I had invented a time machine, but the machine only allowed the person to travel through time at the same speed as everyone else.  Have I invented a time machine if the speed the user travels though time equals the speed the non-user travels through time?  What if this machine is a supersonic plane, and the flyer moves fractionally faster through time than the non-flyer, but at the same rate as anyone flying at the same speed for the same duration?  Is this a time machine?

This brings me to a literary thought experiment.  What relationship does our memory have with time?  Is there Proustian time within the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea?  And can we ever recapture time by writing about it?  I would put forth that in writing about the past, even the fictional past, we come closer than we otherwise could in just attempting to remember the past.  In writing, we can extend the past, stretch it out, record not only it but our thoughts on it, and in that way we can give time the time to exist as it is, not as our imperfect memories recall it.


19 June 2012

The Summer Heat

(drawing by Salvador Dali)

The Summer Heat

Under the sun, the skin of sheets and underwear hung out to dry
Wrinkles and withers and dies in the defeat of fresh laundry,
And shadows play like schoolchildren.

The wind gusts, the breath of a pestering lover tickling the neck
And the humid blanket of air shrouding bare leg and back,
Sweat dripping like a night of savage love.

Patios and front porches shelter delicate flowers and anxious fiancées
From the sweltering drought of moist kisses and future finances,
And the blossoming seeds sleep in the dark soil.

And everything grows, fades, languishes, and revives with cool dusk,
Stirring in the hearts of wistful grandmothers the perpetual task,
The vigil of their younger loves and loss.

-R. R. Shea


01 June 2012

What I read in May

Another month, eleven more books.


The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño
The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex
Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño
My life as an experiment by A.J. Jacobs
The Hero of the Big House by Alvaro Pombo
Bloody Blanche by Marcel Schwob
The Great Sea by David Abulafia
Unrecounted by W. G. Sebald
Borges (critical lives) by Colin Wilson
What is a book by Joseph Dane
The Temple of the iconoclasts by Juan Rodolfo Wilcock
Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

27 May 2012

How I work

 (All of the artwork in this post is by Erik Desmaziéres)

I spend most of my time (gladly) engaged in being a father and a husband, not always in that order.  I do most of the cooking, a lot of the cleaning, and most of the financial handling, though my wife is much better at it.  Beyond those things, I read.  A lot.  When I have time I write, translate, exercise (not enough) and spend time with friends (not always enough, but sometimes).  When I am working on a writing or translating project, both of which I am doing right now, my methodology is pretty constant.

I try to write no more than two hours per day, about 3-4 pages, often much less.  This makes for slow progress.  In addition, I often will rewrite the same page multiple times before I move on to the next one, and once I have gone on to the next one, I attempt to never go back and change anything.  I look at parts of a novel, at least as it is being written, in the same way I look at life: we often would give a great deal to go back and fix some of the stupidities of our younger selves, but in doing so, we realize that we would cease to be who we are, and that the journey to our present selves would be far less interesting.  Likewise, I have a certain destination in mind when I start a story, but I never know exactly how I’m going to get there.  In this not knowing, I am as curious as the reader, and I do hope that this state makes the writing more enjoyable.  I might mention a knife on someone’s kitchen counter, a knife covered in blood, the source of said blood being unknown to me as I see it, perhaps it is from a pig, or a person, and I will need to account for the blood on that knife by the end of the story.  But the challenge is to make sure everything is there at the beginning, that I am forming a foundation upon which I can build without the fear of having to reconstruct it.  I feel this, at least for me, gives a tighter, stronger, more suspenseful and interesting story.  Occasionally, this method leads to utter ruin and disaster.

I take notes on a legal pad, snippets of ideas, a few phrases I like, some reminders.  I do this at random times during the day.  If paper is not at hand, I use my phone and either take a note or record an idea to listen to later.

I work at my desk in our basement office, a room – like the rest of the basement – filled with books.  I have filled the office with trinkets: an hourglass, a statue of Augustus, a plush Barbaro horse figure, toy army men, a fencing mask and fencing foil, atlases and dictionaries in several languages, pictures of my family, a large FC Barcelona flag, a Panama hat, some nice stationery, a chaise lounge.  Next to my desk, I have created a reading nook for my little girl, so she can come down and sit by me and read sometimes when I am working, though I do most of my work in solitude.  Working in solitude is the hardest part of working.  I find those people who claim to need to write in the same way they need to breathe to be disingenuous, or else to be in need of psychiatric treatment.  Laughter and company are better friends to me.

Translating is just the opposite in almost every respect.  It comes in spurts, because I translate only what I love, and that is mostly poetry.  I spend much less time on it, and I rarely think on it when the text is not in front of me (my writing I carry around inside of me always).  And I can translate anywhere, so long as I have a dictionary and a grammar.

These things aside, my main work, my legacy, is my family, my wife and my daughter.  Everything else is secondary.  Everything else is busywork. 

08 May 2012

The photograph

I’ve since lost it, but I can still remember every detail from when I first saw it.  They are grouped together like DaVinci’s ‘Last Supper,’ which is to say that they are all posing and looking forward, grouped together on one side of the table so that every face can be seen, even the face of the one playing this group’s Judas.  Every group has one. It’s a cheap Polaroid, the left corner of the bottom white strip creased and yellowing, a photo taken in the summer of 1992 outside of a café in Barcelona.  I’m not sure if it is taken during or after the Olympics, because I cannot see any of the waiters in this shot.  Once the Olympics had departed that summer, leaving the city with a hangover of success, overworked prostitutes, and vastly improved infrastructure, I remember the stone shoulders of all of the waiters, at least all of the waiters serving in restaurants along the Ramblas, softening and gradually sloping down, like an armada of sails dipping over a horizon illuminated with the summer sun. Let us imagine that the Olympics are over when this picture is taken so as not to get sidetracked with the actions of that one titanic son of a bitch who ruined a few lives forever.  We will assume this is taken after the initial actions of the titanic son of a bitch, but not before everyone fully realizes the consequences of those actions.  The scribbles on the back of the photo overlap in a frenetic mess, though a few words of French are legible.  Identifying the people in the Polaroid is straightforward.  They are, from left to right, B. Thomas, Javier Marías, R. Shea, Maria Iniesta, E.N. Swildon, and Lord Rymer. 

B. Thomas is Blake Thomas, an American jazz trumpeter and occasional philanderer more well known for the fictional biography of him written by one of his friends than for any of his music, or any of his philandering, for that matter.  He is sitting on the edge of his bistro chair, all legs and nose and elbows, leaning in and angling his inside ear toward the ground.  That is the ear he will go deaf in a short time later, and he has developed the habit by this time (I’m sure it is after the Olympics now) of leaning toward his friends during conversations and gatherings.  His brown hair is cut short, and his cheeks are red with the hint of razor burn.  He’s the most casually dressed of the group, in blue jeans and a plain white tee shirt that reminds one of James Dean, had James Dean lived a few more years.  The photograph cuts off his feet, but he only brought a pair of gray running shoes to Europe that summer.  He’s not looking at the camera, but across at Maria Iniesta, a woman he knows through friends, and not very well.  Then why is he looking at her?  He’s looking at her cleavage, or at her tits, as he would say if forced to give an answer.  His usual smile is absent.

Javier Marías is the famous Spanish writer, of course, though he has had the fortune to be less famous in this photograph and to grow more famous as time has passed.  This sometimes happens in reverse, resulting in the fading light of once bright stars, in the creation of hacks out of poets.  Marías is well known for his philandering, which is ironic because he is not in any substantial way that sort of man.  His characters in his novels sleep with women, but only because Marías is an honest writer.  He is leaning back in his chair, his right arm brought up, his hand poking out of his shirtsleeve and supporting his chin.  He is looking at the camera, and his gaze is so direct that one feels he is looking past it, past the photographer, past the photograph, and at you.  Another honest writer, Sebald, once included an image of Javier Marías’s eyes precisely because of this directness:  

They are Latin eyes, with none of the actual look of almonds, but with the hint of that look, and so, other than being direct, the writer’s eyes are a cliché or a trope.  His left arm is pressed across his chest, giving the right arm a base on which to rest.  His left hand is grabbing tight to the right side of his shirt, just below the armpit (his knuckles look drained of blood), but he appears relaxed.  He has a slight smile, almost always there, which most people take for smugness, an assumption he takes no pains to correct.  He is wearing dark slacks, though the round of the bistro table cuts off all but a portion of his right leg from the viewer.

Next is R. Shea, a hack writer, a sycophant, chubby and growing fatter by the moment, tall, hair like a willow tree after a storm (he is the only male with long hair at the table). Shea is perhaps amused with the knowledge that he is in the process of ruining lives, of becoming this group’s Judas, this group’s titanic son of a bitch. It is possible that he is internally amused, but he doesn’t show it here.  He wears a perpetual frown, developed in childhood, and his brow is furled as if he has come to the crux of an unsettling and intellectually demanding problem, though as often as not he is thinking about nothing.  The rest of him is unremarkable, so much so that I cannot even recall his first name.  He is wearing a white cotton shirt with starched collar and the long sleeves rolled up haphazard, part of his own particular mixture of dandy and slob.  The table hides his legs, but smart money says he is wearing khaki shorts and dark leather sandals.  Besides Blake, he is the only American in the group.  He is leaning toward Blake, though not looking at him, forming an invisible link between the two countrymen that Marías appears to be avoiding by leaning back and away from the conversation.  It looks to be a conversation, too, and perhaps Shea has just said something, something about the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of gawking at Maria’s breasts in the middle of a café on the Ramblas while someone is taking a photograph, and Blake is straining to process the words he did hear, taking the ones he didn’t to be unintelligible instead of having to contemplate any sort of hearing loss, and of course still gawking with the thin veil of discretion.  Shea, chastisement offered, is looking off into the distance, at nothing, at no one, like always.

Maria Iniesta, a South American expat, is the Christ, the center of the photograph, a hinge around which all of the other people are rotating, even if they appear to be ignoring her completely.  She is looking down at the table, at the piece of bread and her petite wine glass, the body and the blood, and her shoulders are sloping, but not out of relief or success like those of the waiters no longer burdened with Olympic tourists and burnt out hookers.  The lines of responsibility and guilt are beginning to line Maria’s dark face, though she is rather young, the youngest of them all.  She is wearing a white blouse, or perhaps it is faded peach, with lace straps across the shoulders, the left side hanging lower, the tip of the white scar that runs across her chest just peeking out.  If you look very closely, and if you know where to look, if you have looked at that scar myriad times when she was naked on top of you, making love to you in the frenetic way she did, her eyes closed, tears falling across her smile, then you can see the beginnings of that scar very well.  Her black hair is tangled, each long strand like a jewel in a crown of thorns around her forehead, cascading down her back.  Her downcast eyes remind one of the stones set in the eyes of a statue.  Her right hand is reaching for the sharp knife near the bread.  Her left is under the table, though probably nowhere near Swildon.

E. N. Swildon, the British classicist, sits like a god upon his throne.  His chest stretches the silk of his blue dress shirt.  His tie is tastefully unfastened and hanging around his neck, equal in length on either side down to his shirt pocket.  His chin tilts up, and his mouth hangs open in the midst of a roar of laughter, the laughter of a lion at play.  His eyes are closed, so the viewer cannot see that they are the color of sherry, or the color of sherry in a decanter, and that those eyes shimmer whenever Swildon looks at you, as he waits the extra few seconds for you to feel compelled to speak, as he weathers silences.  This photograph is the only other time I have seen his eyes closed, and like when I saw them closed 15 years later as Swildon’s body occupied his coffin, I have the urge to wait with the patience Swildon used upon his friends until those eyes opened again. 

Lord Rymer finishes the group portrait.  The fat man, fatter than Shea, he is known in Oxford as the flask.  Marías used him as a character once, and Rymer has never forgotten it, states that he is eternally in the Spaniard's debt.  Rymer is a writer in his own right, the author of ‘The Book of Dead Novelists’ and ‘Eça de Quieros as a figure of Jest,’ which won some prestigious award in Oxford and nothing but biter condemnation from the intelligentsia of Portugal.  His beady eyes are fixed on the food, and his tongue darts out of his thick lips in spasms.  He is paying for this meal, and the photograph is nothing more than a speed bump on the way to his gastronomical satisfaction

I would like to wind back the clock on them all, to take them out of this group photograph, to get them all away from the titanic son of a bitch and safeguard the secrets he has already begun to tell about them to complete strangers for nothing more than his own amusement.  But dare I?