Sunday, November 30th, 2008
Saramago writes today about the Livraria Cultura, a giant bookstore in the Conjunto Nacional shopping mall in São Paulo. (He and Pilar have been travelling in Brazil for the last few weeks and are now returning to the Canary Islands.)
The last image that we bring with us from Brazil is of a beautiful bookstore, a cathedral of books, modern, efficient, lovely. It is Livraria Cultura, in the Conjunto Nacional. It is a bookstore to be sure, a place for buying books, but it is also a place for enjoying the impressive spectacle of so many titles organized in such an attractive form, as if it were not a store, as if we were speaking of a work of art. The Livraria Cultura is a work of art.
So: kind of funny and cute to think about old man Saramago digging the lovely new bookstore. Especially nice to think about that, when I've got in mind pictures of young Pamuk seeking out books in the antiquarian shops of Istanbul.
The Borgesian library is not for me a metaphysical fantasy of an infinite world‚??it is the library I have built up in my house in Istanbul, volume by volume.Pamuk's new memoir in the New York Review of Books is about building up his library -- one book at a time, "a bit like building a house stone by stone." It's similar to the shorter piece he published last month in the Guardian but contains some valuable new information.
Turkey was never a Western colony, and so when Turks imitated the West as Atat√ľrk decreed, it was never the damning, demeaning undertaking described by Kundera, Naipaul, and Edward Said‚??it became an important part of Turkish identity.
I hadn't quite gotten this previously -- it is easier to understand his presentation of the conflict between Islamist and Nationalist in Snow, with this point in hand.
When I decided to become a writer, neither poems nor novels were valued as individual expressions of an artistic sensibility, a strange spirit, a soul: the dominant view was that serious writers worked collectively, and their work was valued for the way in which it contributed to a social utopia and reflected a shared vision (like modernism, socialism, Islamism, nationalism, or secular republicanism). There was little interest in literary circles in the problem of the individual creative writer who drew from history and tradition, or who tried to find the literary form that best accommodated his voice.
I'm really taken with the idea of Pamuk as working to introduce the notion of the author as "individual creative writer" into a Turkish literary scene which values the author as a member of an ideological collective.
(One annoying thing: The NYRB software that turns magazine articles into web pages has a problem with some Turkish characters, in particular at least ı and ğ, which it has replaced with blank spaces.)
Update: Scott Esposito is unhappy to see this essay appearing in NYRB so soon after a version was published in the Guardian -- I can see his point although I like the piece a lot better than he does.
Some beautiful art at this Flicker set of images from the recent Urban Painting exhibition in Carugate, Italy. (via Wooster Collective)
The first chapter of The Stone Raft is pretty dreamy. Saramago has got me wondering though, with his silent dogs of Cerbère, whose barking will herald the end of the world -- this seems like a weird detail to invent, but I'm not finding any reference to it with Google. I want to know if this is a real folk tale or a creation of Saramago's. And a couple of things to do with translation: what is referenced by "And to all appearances definitive," at the beginning of the last sentence of the long paragraph on pp 2-3? There is no obvious subject for the modifier. And on page 1, "a dog with three heads and the above-mentioned named of Cerberus," ("named" clearly a typo for "name") makes me do a double-take -- the name Cerberus has not been mentioned, although the French form of that name is Cerbère, the same as (though etymologically unrelated to) the village where the dogs are barking. Is Saramago counting on the reader to know this? Or is the Portuguese form of Cerberus the same as the French?...
This chapter consists mainly of introducing some characters by name and discussing what they were doing at a particular moment in time, the moment (as I know from reading the blurb on the back cover*) when Iberia breaks away from the continent of Europe. It is cute and whimsical -- but there are some passages that pull the reader below the surface to look at the underpinnings of the structure that this novel will build. José Anaiço is walking through a field at the fateful moment, when a flock of starlings rises into the sky and wheels around.
...birds don't have reasons, just instincts, often vague and involuntary as if they were not part of us, we spoke about instincts, but also about reasons and motives. So let us not ask José Anaiço who he is and what he does for a living, where he comes from and where he is going, whatever we find out about him, we shall only find out from him, and this description, this sketchy information will have to serve for Joana Carda and her elm branch, for Joaquim Sassa and the stone he threw into the sea, for Pedro Orce and the chair he got up from, life does not begin when people are born, if it were so, each day would be a day gained, life begins much later, and how often too late, not to mention those lives that have no sooner begun than they are over, which has led one poet to exclaim, Ah, who will write the history of what might have been.
(And what poet was that? Google gives no results except from this book. Perhaps an invention of Saramago's, perhaps something that has not yet been translated to English in this precise wording.)
A beautiful passage a few pages before this one is the first point where Saramago addresses the audience, asks us to consider what we are doing when we sit down and start reading the story he has composed:
Writing is extremely difficult, it is an enormous responsibility, you need only think of the exhausting work involved in setting out events in chronological order, first this one, then that, or, if more conducive to the desired effect, today's event before yesterday's episode, and other no less risky acrobatics, presenting the past as if it were something new, or the present as a continuous process with neither beginning nor end, but, however hard writers might try, there is one feat they cannot achieve, and that is to put into writing, in the same tense, two events that have occurred simultaneously,... The people who come off best are the opera singers, each with his or her own part to sing, three, four, five, six in all among the tenors, basses, sopranos and baritones, all singing different words, the cynic mocking, the ingénue pleading, the gallant lover slow in coming to her aid, what interests the operagoer is the music, but the reader is not like this, he wants everything explained, syllable by syllable, one after the other, as they are shown here.
And I think oh gosh, this beautiful prose! It washes pleasantly over me but gets even better when I pause and examine it more closely. The rhythm of phrases and commas and repetitions and the power of the period.
* A mildly funny thing about the blurb: it was written in ’96 and says Saramago is "Winner of the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize" -- I'm used to thinking of Saramago as the winner of the prestigious Nobel prize for literature but of course he was not always that.
Saturday, November 29th, 2008
Pamuk has written a expanded version of his October essay on collecting books -- it is published (in Maureen Freely's translation) in the December New York Review of Books: My Turkish Library.
Friday, November 28th, 2008
Here is what I am thinking about the main character of O Lucky Man!: the viewer is compelled to identify with him, to feel paranoid on his behalf. The mechanism for this, the driving force, is Travis' lack of self-consciousness. He moves through the world without putting together the strands of paranoia that are the fabric of the movie -- not exactly naïve; but unable to grasp how everything that happens in the world of the movie is directed at him. This is a little difficult for me to express:
- A working definition of paranoia as the belief that everything that happens to you is connected and happens because of its effect on you.
- Travis is the main character of this movie; and everything that happens in the movie happens because of its effect on him. Everything that happens in the movie is connected by virtue of being part of the same script. If Travis realized this -- if he realized he were a character in the movie -- he would be paranoid.
- But he does not -- so you the viewer, as you get the levels of connection and of conspiracy against him, have to assume the role of his ego
This line of thinking needs some work. But it seems promising; it highlights how the experience of enjoying the narrative involves identifying with the main character as a key element, and starts working towards a mechanism for this process of identification.
Watching O Lucky Man last night reminded me in a couple of ways of reading Gravity's Rainbow. Now I've certainly been known to make spurious comparisons of various works of art to Pynchon; but I think this one stands up. What I'm getting at (beyond Travis' obvious points of resemblance to Tyrone Slothrop) is, the points where the sheer artistry of the medium -- the prose in GR, the images and soundtrack in O Lucky Man! -- overwhelms my ability to follow the narrative and I find I'm just basking in the beauty flowing by. And need to go back and reread to figure out what was going on. If all goes according to plan I will watch it again tonight...
I haven't talked about the music yet, just want to note that it's utterly delightful and makes me want to listen to more Alan Price and more Animals, of whom all I really know is their big hits. Also Anderson's use of ambient noise just about took my breath away. This is one of the best soundtracks ever.
Thursday, November 27th, 2008
This is a great movie. I'm going to need to watch it another time or two before I can really comment on it with much understanding. My initial reaction is that it's sort of like watching dada sketch comedy -- there must be good ideas in here for 5 or 6 movies, thrown together in an utterly reckless way. It would be so easy for it to suck -- but somehow it's wonderful.
Malcolm McDowell wrote the screenplay (at least he said he did in the fine documentary O Lucky Malcolm!, which comes with the DVD; he is not credited as the writer) and acts lead, and is just a trip to watch. I was surprised while watching the documentary to realize that I haven't seen any of the huge majority of his films that he's done since 1982.
Hope everybody is having a pleasant time. For your Thanksgiving listening, Pet provides a funny monologue from Benny Rubin, and Heebie-Geebie provides a funny monologue from Arlo Guthrie.
We're not having our Thanksgiving till tomorrow, to make it easier for Ellen's family to get out here from Long Island; today is going to be dedicated to making pie and watching movies. We're going into town to catch the matinée of Bolt, and then tonight after Sylvia goes to sleep Ellen and I are going to watch O Lucky Man! (Coincidental trivia: Malcolm McDowell is one of the voices in Bolt. Last night we watched the documentary O Lucky Malcolm! which is included on disc 2 of O Lucky Man! -- it was really nice listening to him talking about his career, and weird to realize I haven't watched any of his movies since Cat People.)
Wednesday, November 26th, 2008
The squid Magnapinna has been photographed and filmed by a team from working from a Shell offshore oil rig. See the video and read more at National Geographic.
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Check out Ellen's writing at Patch.com.