Saturday, April 10th, 2010
We're back from vacation! Pictures soon. I have a whole lot of new reading material on hand...
While we were in Modesto I visited my childhood hangout Yesterday's Books (it seemed so much smaller...) and got a cheap copy of Paradise Lost, which Mark (on Good Friday!) convinced me I ought to read. It certainly is easy to read -- not sure how much I am getting out of it, but it rolls in through my eyes quite easily.
In San Francisco we visited Ellen's old friend Maryam, who gave us copies of her new book Returning to Iran -- a look at events there from an expatriate's eye. Reading the first few pieces I am interested and looking forward to the rest.
Also in SF, I visited Libros Latinos on Mission and 17th, and picked up a bunch of books. They are a used book store specializing in Spanish and Portuguese lit with (seemingly) an academic target market. Definitely worth dropping in if you are in the area, a beautiful selection. I got:
- Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos by Borges -- forewords that he has written for a wide variety of books, published in 1974. Cervantes, Whitman, Swedenborg, Martín Fierro, Ray Bradbury(!), his own translation of Kafka...
- Martín Fierro -- no idea if I will ever actually get to the point of understanding this, it seemed like a nice book to have on hand while I'm trying to understand Borges.
- Putas asesinos by Bolaño
- The black sheep and other fables by Augusto Monterroso (who will be the first author Bolaño has hipped me to) -- these are pleasant little fables about (mainly) animals. The blurbs on the back, from García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Isaac Asimov(!), might be the most compelling pull-quotes I've ever seen.
- I did not buy, because of the price, Borges Laberintos Dručmelić, which is "The Immortal" and "The Circular Ruins" illustrated with stunning color plates of the paintings of Zdravko Dručmelić -- if you're looking to buy me a present, look no further.
- The steep markdown which Libros Latinos offers on cash transactions meant I still had enough money in my pocket to stop at Nueva Librería México down the street and get a copy of Don Quixote.
...Arrived home lugging a big bag of books (Ellen and Sylvia also did some book shopping on the trip), and found on my doorstep a book I had ordered a while back from a used-book seller, Raul Galvez' From the Ashen Land of the Virgin: conversations with Bioy Casares, Borges, Denevi, Etchecopar, Ocampo, Orozco, Sabato. My shelves are full!
This is the second story in The black sheep and other fables -- the story of which Isaac Asimov says (and I'm dying to know now whether this book has been published in translation, or if Asimov reads Spanish...)* that after reading it, "you will never be the same again."
In the jungle there once lived a monkey who wanted to write satire.
He studied hard, but soon realized that he did not know people well enough to write satire, and he started a program of visiting everyone, going to cocktails and observing, watching for the glint of an eye while his host was distracted, a cup in his hand.
As he was most clever and his agile pirhouettes were entertaining for all the other animals, he was received well almost everywhere; and he strove to make it even moreso.
There was no-one who did not find his conversation charming; when he arrived he was fêted and jubilated among the monkeys, by the ladies as much as by their husbands, and by the rest of the inhabitants of the jungle too, even by those who were into politics, whether international, domestic or local, he invariably showed himself to be understanding -- and always, to be clear, with the aim of seeing the base components of human nature and of being able to render them in his satires.
And so there came a time when among the animals, he was the most advanced student of human nature; nothing got by him.
Then one day, he said: I'm going to write against thievery, and he went to see the magpies; and at first he went at it with enthusiasm, enjoying himself and laughing, looking up with pleasure at the trees as he thought about what things happen among the magpies -- but then on second thought, he considered the magpies who were among the animals who had received him so pleasantly -- especially one magpie, and that they would see their portrait in his satire, however gently he wrote it.. and he left off doing it.
Then he wanted to write about opportunists, and he cast his eye on the serpent, who by whatever means (auxiliary to his talent for flattery) managed always to conserve, to trade, to increase his posessions... But then some serpents were friends of his, and especially one serpent; they would see the reference. So he left off doing it.
Then he thought of satirizing compulsive work habits, and he turned to the bee, the bee who works dumbly and without knowing why or for whom; but for fear of offending some of his friends of this genus, and especially one of them, he ended up comparing them favorably to the cicada, that egotist who will do nothing more than sing, sing, who thinks himself a poet... and he left off doing it.
Then it occurred to him, he could write against sexual promiscuity, and he directed his satire against the adulterous hens who strut around all day restlessly looking for roosters; but then some of them had received him well, he feared hurting them, and he left off doing it.
In the end he came up with a complete list of human failings and weaknesses, and he could not find a target for his guns -- they were all failings of his friends who had shared their table with him, and of himself.
At that moment he renounced his writing of satire, and began to teach mysticism and love, this type of thing; but this made people talk (you know how it is with people), they said he had gone crazy, they no longer received him as gladly or with such pleasure.
* Yep, looks like it was published in English in 1971.
While I'm thinking of it, another story I really enjoy from The Black Sheep and other fables:
At first, faith moved mountains only as a last resort, when it was absolutely necessary, and so the landscape remained the same over the millennia.
But once faith started propagating itself among people, some found it amusing to think about moving mountains, and soon the mountains did nothing else but change places, each time making it a little more difficult to find one in the same place you had left it last night; obviously this created more problems than it solved.
The good people decided then to abandon faith; so nowadays the mountains remain (by and large) in the same spot.
When the roadway falls in and drivers die in the collapse, it means someone, far away or quite close by, felt a light glimmer of faith.
Thursday, April 29th, 2010
Monterroso writes, "There are three topics: love, death, and flies" -- and right away I'm thinking of Robyn Hitchcock... This is the introduction to part II of Monterroso's collection Complete Works (and Other Stories).*
There are three topics: love, death, and flies. Since humanity has existed, this sentiment, this fear, these presences have accompanied him everywhere. Let others deal with the first two; I will occupy myself with flies, which are greater than men (if not than women). For years I've had in mind the idea of putting together a universal anthology of the fly. I still mean to do it -- but, I soon came to realize the task was practically infinite. The fly pervades literature; anywhere you cast your eye, you are sure to find the fly. There is no true author who has not taken the opportunity to dedicate a poem, a page, a paragraph, a line to him; if you are an author and have not done this, I advise you to follow my example, to hurry up and do it. Flies are the Eumenides, the Erinyes; they are chastisers. They are avengers, for what we don't know -- but you know that they have persecuted you; as far as you know, they will go on persecuting you forever. They are vigilant. They are the avatars of something unnameable, something benevolent or malign. They pursue you. They follow you. They watch you. When at last you die, it's likely (and it's too bad) that one fly will suffice to carry your poor, distracted soul who knows where. Flies convey -- and they come over the course of the ages to own their cargo -- the souls of our dead, of our forebears, who thus remain close to us, accompanying us, determined to protect us. They are a means for our small souls' transmigrations; they accumulate wisdom -- they come to know everything that we do not dare to know. Perhaps the ultimate propagator of our tired western culture will be the body of this fly, who has come down through the course of the centuries, furthering his line without enriching himself....
You can read the original at valdeperrillos.com, where they have the beginnings of the anthology Monterroso dreams of -- I am surprised not to see Denevi's God of the flies in there as well.
* It appears this piece is actually from a different collection, Perpetual Motion; the two collections were published together in translation under the title of the first.
Friday, April 30th, 2010
The rest of the piece I started yesterday -- Monterroso explains some of the role flies play in our universe.
...And think about what I believe Milla said (an author whom of course you will not know but whom thanks to having occupied yourself with the fly, you are hearing mentioned for the first time today), that the fly is not as ugly as it appears at first sight. But this is because, at first sight it does not appear ugly -- precisely because nobody has ever seen a fly for the first time. Nobody ever thinks to wonder, were there flies before me? will there be flies after me? In the beginning was the fly. (It's practically impossible that such a phrase would not appear here -- in the beginning was the fly or some such thing. We live out these phrases. Phrases which --fly--, like sorrow --fly--, mean nothing. Grievous phrases which fill up our books.) Forget it. It's easier for a fly to land on the Pope's nose than for the Pope to land on the nose of a fly. The Pope, or the king or the president (the president of the country of course -- the president of a financial company or a corporation or a maker of product X is in general foolish enough to be considered better than that) is not able to call out his Swiss Guard or his Royal Guard or his Presidential Guard to kill a fly. On the contrary, he is tolerant; perhaps he will just scratch his nose. You know. And you know that the fly knows too, and watches out; you know that what we actually have is a guard of flies, who take care at every hour lest we fall into mortal sin -- which would require a guard of angels, who would soon slack off and turn into accomplices, like the angel in Hitler's guard or the one in Johnson's. But it doesn't have to be that way. Let's return to noses. The fly who lands on yours is a direct descendant of the one who dropped in on Cleopatra's. And once again you fall into these prefabricated rhetorical allusions which everyone has used already. And still you want to create literature. The fly wants you to wrap it in this atmosphere of kings, popes and emperors -- and it wins out. It is your master. You cannot speak of it without an inclination towards grandeur. Oh Melville, you had to sail the seas in order finally to make up this great white whale on your desk in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, without realizing that all the while, since the hot evenings of your childhood when Evil would flutter around your strawberry ice cream and, as the years passed by, over you yourself in the dusk as you pulled out one by one the brown hairs of your beard, reading Cervantes and polishing your style; and not necessarily in that enormous mass of bones and sperm incapable of doing any evil, but rather in him who interrupts your nap, like the crazy Ahab, and Poe and his raven? Ridiculous. Take a look at the fly. Observe. Think.
...Well, much of this is pretty rough. That last sentence in particular, about Melville, is a monstrosity that is going to take a while to figure out. The author Milla whom Monterroso refers to at the top of this piece is José Milla y Vidaurre, who has an essay about flies in his Book Without a Name. Not sure why Monterroso doesn't think his audience would have heard of Milla -- the Wikipædia entry makes it sound like he was an important author in Guatemala. Come to think of it I don't know if Monterroso was writing for a specifically Guatemalan audience, or if he was even living in Guatemala when he wrote this book. Lots to find out... The next book Milla wrote was called Book With a Name.
Sunday, May second, 2010
So Monterroso's essay on flies references José Milla y Vidaurre's essay on flies (this piece turns out to be completely beyond my limited abilities as a translator -- the final two paragraphs depend on the double meaning of mosca, which can be "fly" or "cash"), which references a piece by Lucian In Appreciation of the Fly. (Have I mentioned how happy Google Books, in all its imperfection, makes me?)
...Both Milla and Lucian reference Iliad XVII:487-92, in which Athena blesses Menelaos: in Chapman's translation, "For which grace she kindly did bestow/ Strength on his shoulders, and did fill his knees as liberally/ With swiftness, breathing in his breast the courage of a fly,/ Which loves to bite so, and doth bear man's blood so much good will,/ That still though beaten from a man she flies upon him still;/ With such a courage Pallas filled the black parts near his heart."
Monday, May 10th, 2010
In an essay in Perpetual Motion (the second piece down on the linked page), Monterroso talks about first reading Borges and about becoming slowly immersed in his thinking and his puzzles. It is a very nice introduction to Borges; I was surprised to see that the work which opened Monterroso's eyes was Borges' foreword to his translation (1938) of The Metamorphosis:
When I first found Borges, in 1945, I didn't understand him; he was frankly puzzling for me. Delving into Kafka, I found Borges' foreword to The Metamorphosis; and for the first time I saw before me his world of metaphysical labyrinths, of infinities, of eternities, of tragic trivialities, of quotidian relationships comparable to the worst hell imaginable. A new universe, gleaming, ferociously attractive. Crossing from that foreword to all the rest of Borges' work has been for me (and for many others) an activity as important as breathing, and at the same time as dangerous as walking too close to the edge of a chasm. Following him has meant discovering and descending into new circles: Chesterton, Melville, Bloy, Swedenborg, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf; taking up old friendships: Cervantes, Quevedo, Hernández; and at last returning to his illusory Paradise of the everyday: the barrio, the movie-house, the detective story.
I'm surprised because that foreword does not strike me as among Borges' finest work; it's principally just a capsule biography/chronology of Kafka and his work, and a cursory discussion of some themes in his work. (Obviously discovering Kafka in 1945 would be different from my experience of discovering Kafka in 1985 or thereabouts; but it would still be "discovering Kafka", not "discovering Borges".) There is one paragraph that seems to me to move to a different level:
Critics complain that in Kafka's three novels, there is a lack of linking material; but they recognize that this material is not essential. Myself, I maintain that this criticism indicates a fundamental unfamiliarity with the work of Kafka. The pathos of these "inconclusive" novels arises precisely from the infinite number of obstacles which block, again and again, the paths of his identical protagonists. Franz Kafka did not finish them: their basic property is that they are interminable. Do you remember the first, the most clear of Zeno's paradoxes? Motion is impossible, because before arriving at B we have to cross the intermediate point C, but before we arrive at C, we have to cross the intermediate point D, but before arriving at D... The Greek did not enumerate all of the points; Franz Kafka need not enumerate all the vicissitudes. It is enough for us to understand that they are infinite, like Hell.
(I hope I am understanding correctly how Borges is taking issue with critics of Kafka -- I don't really know whom or what arguments he is referring to.)
As he closes his piece, Monterroso talks about what your encounter with Borges can do to you:
The great problem of reading Borges: the temptation to imitate him is almost irresistable; to imitate him, impossible. Some writers you can get away with imitating -- Conrad, Greene, Durrel -- not Joyce; not Borges. It will sound facile and obvious.
The meeting with Borges never takes place without consequences. I've listed here a few of the things that can happen, for better and for the worse:
(Note on the translation: "for the better" is benéfica, "for the worse" is maléfica -- I think these are about right; it is too bad that the English phrases don't match up nicely to the title, as the Spanish words do -- the title is Beneficios y maleficios de Jorge Luis Borges, "Jorge Luis Borges: Blessings and Curses" -- I guess it could be translated as "Jorge Luis Borges for better or worse", but that would sound pretty hokey.)
- Pass him by without noticing (for the worse).
- Pass him by; retrace one's steps and follow him for a little while to see what he's doing (for the better).
- Pass him by; retrace one's steps and follow him forever (for the worse).
- Find out that one is a simpleton, that until this moment one has never had an idea worth one's while (for the better).
- Find out that one is intelligent, because one enjoys reading Borges (for the better).
- Dazzle oneself with the fable of Achilles and the Tortoise; believe that one has figured it all out (for the worse).
- Discover the infinite and the eternal (for the better).
- Mull over the infinite and the eternal (for the better).
- Believe in the infinite and the eternal (for the worse).
- Leave off writing (for the better).
Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
Longtime readers will remember how excited I was to read Augusto Monterroso's short story "The Dinosaur"* -- today I discover that Monterroso had an august predecessor in Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's story "Baby Shoes" is only six words long, and has inspired a whole genre of six-word micro-stories. Perpetual Folly reprints a BlackBook feature in which 25 major writers -- skewing older-white-male-mid-century -- contributed their six-worders; I'm partial to Brian Bouldrey's contribution, but there is a lot to be said for Norman Mailer's, too. Wired Magazine ran a feature with 92 six-word stories from science-fiction or science-fictiony authors including Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Bruce Sterling, and more. And Pete Berg maintains a blog at sixwordstories.net dedicated to publishing readers' six-word stories.
* (Follow the link! Nick Boalch is attempting to translate "The Dinosaur" into a comic -- what a great idea.)
Saturday, July 7th, 2012
It's the funniest thing -- somehow I had gotten it into my head that the title of Bartleby y compañia was Bartlett y companía -- this despite many times of reading the correct title, and of writing it out, and even of ordering it on Amazon [and it occurs to me now that I have not really read anything, anything that sticks in my memory, about it, just references to the title]... thinking it had something to do with the quotations dude. (And to be sure there are a lot of quotations in the text -- that's not really here nor there though.) This is my introduction to Vila-Matas and it sure is a pleasant one. The idea of "un cuaderno de notas a pie de página que comentaron un texto invisible" is just about exactly what I am wanting to be reading right now -- and here I am experiencing that reverse-projection which I refer to as identification with the text in spades, I feel like the first chapter of the book is written in my voice. Thanks for the impetus, Richard. (And I am going to throw caution to the wind disregarding the hinted warning in Jean de la Bruyère's epigraph. Tal vez soy yo entre los otros a quienes la gloria consistiría en no escribir, pero...)
... His second book was even more successful than the first, professors in North American, and some of the most distinguished ones among the academic world of those long-past days, wrote enthusiastic reviews, wrote books about the books which were commenting on the Fox's books.
And from this moment on, the Fox felt -- with good reason -- that he was content; the years passed by without his publishing anything.
Well, people started talking. "What's up with the Fox?" -- when he showed up right on time for cocktails they would come up to him and be like, You ought to publish something more.
-- But look, I've already published two books.
-- And good ones, too! -- would come the reply -- That's exactly why you should publish another one!
And here the Fox did not say anything, but thought to himself: "What they're really looking for, is for me to publish a lousy book. But because I am the Fox, I'm not going to do it."
And he didn't.
"Fox is the smart one."
The Black Sheep and other fables
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