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Finding a way to talk about the reading experience is, I’ve realised, the greatest pleasure of writing; where it ends is of no importance.

Stephen Mitchelmore

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Sunday, December 4th, 2005

🦋 At the moment

...I'm sick in bed with a cold. Hoping it clears up tonight because I've gotta go to work tomorrow -- I was out all last week sitting on a jury. That was a trying experience, which I would like to write up; but I am not going to until I can get to something more than "I went here, I did that, then this happened, and I had another thought" kind of stuff. I watched "The Squid and the Whale" last week and liked it a lot, and started reading Unamuno's "Abel Sanchez". Three fun dates coming up: on Thursday I have my final exam in Operating Systems; next Sunday the Pynchon-l folks are meeting up to watch a puppet theater production of Gogol's "The Nose"; the following Tuesday many commenters from Unfogged are meeting for drinks. All of this seems like stuff I could write about but the creative impulse does not seem to be there.

posted evening of December 4th, 2005: Respond
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Sunday, August 24th, 2008

🦋 July of 1936

I started reading Peter Wyden's The Passionate War: the Narrative History of the Spanish Civil War today -- not chosen through any research, it was just the only title the bookstore had that matched what I was looking for. It seems all right though. (I felt a little disappointed when the first chapter was about some Americans who were stealing into Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade -- I had thought the book was going to be about Spanish history, not Americans' involvement therein -- but that seems to have been just a hook for getting into the history.)

A few chapters in I haven't quite got a handle yet on how quickly events are moving. It seems like Sotelo was assassinated on July 13 and a week later, Sanjurjo has died, Franco is already victorious in Morocco, and Queipo de Llano has surrealistically seized power in Seville; but I don't see the connection between events yet.

I was interested to see that the slogan of the Foreign Legion in Morocco (under Franco) was "Long live death" -- Saramago makes very cryptic mention of this slogan in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, saying that a soldier had said that to Miguel de Unamuno but declining to tell what Unamuno's response had been. A Google search leads me to this article at libertarian site, which gives Unamuno's response as, "To conquer is not to convince." -- More information about this exchange is at José Millán-Astray's Wikipædia entry.

posted afternoon of August 24th, 2008: 2 responses
➳ More posts about The Passionate War

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

🦋 Where the lonely sun sets in the immense sea

Returned to Pedro's house in Orce, the three travellers watch Gibraltar slipping past on TV, and get a glimpse of José's starlings -- he admits he had forgotten them on the drive.

There they are now, as Unamuno described them, his swarthy face cupped in the palms of his hands, Fix your eyes where the lonely sun sets in the immense sea, all nations with the sea to the west do the same,...

Interesting -- what poem of Unamuno's is this? It's a beautiful line. Google gives no hits for the phrase, "Fix your eyes where the lonely sun sets in the immense sea" -- perhaps it has not been translated precisely this way before.

What is hellish about Orce? Repeatedly in the text, Saramago is describing this town as the abode of the Devil -- pictures of the region I can find on the internet seem pretty idyllic though.

This is where Pedro asks to join the travellers in their journey.

posted evening of December 9th, 2008: Respond
➳ More posts about The Stone Raft

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

🦋 Nostalgia for Earth

A fun passage from the beginning of Borges' lecture "Immortality":

Without understanding [William James'] joke, don Miguel de Unamuno repeats it word for word in his The Tragic Sense of Life*: God is the provider of immortality, but he repeats many times that he wants to go on being don Miguel de Unamuno. Here I don't understand Miguel de Unamuno; I do not want to go on being Jorge Luis Borges, I want to be another person. I hope that my death will be total, I hope to die in body and soul.

I do not know if it's ambitious or modest, or at all justifiable, my pretension of speaking about personal immortality, about a soul which preserves a memory of that which was on earth and which already in the other world corresponds to the previous one. I remember that my sister, Norah, was at my house the other day and said: I'm going to paint a picture called "Nostalgia for Earth", having as its content that which an angel feels in heaven, thinking of earth. I'm going to make it up of elements from Buenos Aires when I was a girl.

It's just really nice to see Borges, whom I've always pictured as a sort of forbidding presence, talking in this down-to-earth manner, having a house and a sister...

Update: fixed a blunder in my translation, after referring to Eliot Weinberger's translation of the lecture in Selected Non-Fictions.

* Jaime Nubiola and Izaskun Martínez of the Universidad de Navarra have written a paper on Unamuno's Reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience and its Context. Nubiola also has an interesting note in Streams of William James, vol. I, #3 (pdf), on "Jorge Luis Borges and WJ", and in vol. III, #3 (pdf), on "WJ and Borges Again: the Riddle of the Correspondence with Macedonio Fernández". Professor Nubiola has confirmed to me by e-mail that as he understands it, "Unamuno is a deep believer and William James is -- at the end of the day -- a non believer, who understands the belief in God as the other side of the belief of immortality."

posted afternoon of February 22nd, 2009: 4 responses
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Friday, September 25th, 2009

🦋 ...and speaking of movies based on stories from Cuentos Españoles,

I hope a movie has been made of Unamuno's El marqués de Lumbría; this opening paragraph would be spectacular on the screen:

La casona solariega de los marqueses de Lumbría, el palacio, que es como se le llama en la adusta ciudad de Lorenza, parecía un arca de silenciosos recuerdos del misterio. A pesar de hallarse habitada, casi siempre permanecía con las ventanas y los balcones que daban al mundo cerrados. Su fachada, en la que destacaba el gran escudo de armas del linaje de Lumbría, daba al Mediodía, a la gran plaza de la Catedral, y frente a la ponderosa fábrica de ésta, pero como el sol bañaba casi todo el día, y en Lorenza apenas hay días nublados, todos sus huecos permanecían cerrados. Y ello porque el exelentísimo señor marqués de Lumbría, Don Rodrigo Suárez de Tejada, tenía horror a la luz del sol y al aire libre. "El polvo de la calle y la luz del sol-solía decir-no hacen más que deslustrar los muebles y hechar a perder las habitaciones, y luego, las moscas..." El marqués tenía verdadero horror a las moscas, que podían venir de un andrajoso mendigo, acaso de un tiñoso. El marqués temblaba ante posibles contagios de enfermedades plebeyas. Eran tan sucios los de Lorenza y su comarca...
The ancestral mansion of the Marquéses of Lumbría, the palace as it was called in the gloomy city of Lorenza, appeared as a chest of silent memories of the mysterious. In spite of its being in fact occupied, the windows and balconies which gave out onto the world were almost always closed. The façade, where the great coat of arms of the Lumbrían lineage stood forth, looked south*, onto the great square of the Cathedral, whose ponderous construction it faced, but as the sun was shining all day long, and in Lorenza there are hardly any cloudy days, all of its openings remained closed. And this was because the excellent Señor Marqués of Lumbría, don Rodrigo Suáres de Tejada, abhorred the light of the sun and fresh air. "The dust of the street and the light of the sun -- he used to say -- do no more than dull the furniture's shine and spoil the rooms; not to mention the flies..." The Marqués was deathly afraid of flies, which might have come from a ragged, miserable beggar. The Marqués trembled at the thought of catching plebian diseases. And they were so filthy, the Lorenzans and the countryfolk...

...But it looks like no; several of his stories and books have been filmed but not this.

*How great a dialect for "south" is "noon"? A lovely one.

posted evening of September 25th, 2009: Respond
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Sunday, September 27th, 2009

🦋 Double Standard?

-- Y para guardar un secreto que lo era a voces, para ocultar un enigma que no lo era para nadie, para cubrir unas apariencias falsas ¿hemos vivido así, Tristán? ¡Miseria y nada más! Abrid esos balcones, que entre la luz, toda la luz y el polvo de la calle y las moscas, mañana mismo se quitará el escudo.

-- And so to guard a secret which was no secret, to shroud a mystery which was clear to everyone, to conceal our false appearances we have lived like this, Tristán? -- Misery, nothing more! Open these balonies, let the light in, all the light and the dust of the street and the flies, and tomorrow we will take down the coat of arms.

I was so wrapped up in the story of The Marqués of Lumbría yesterday evening, I was actively cheering Carolina on as she said this -- then I took a step back from the story and asked myself, am I judging Unamuno differently because he is "foreign"? If a present-day Pierre Menard were writing these lines I might think the plot was corny and over-determined. A couple of things that ran through my head --
  • Unamuno is "foreign" -- he is of Spain, he is of the 19th Century, he is of Catholicism. I am exoticising the story by attributing these things to it, which are all outside my experience. This seems like a not-great way of reading, like something that would prevent me from really understanding the story. ...There may be some truth to this but I would be leery of giving it too much weight.
  • I am a less sophisticated reader in Spanish than in English. The barrier separating me from the text, the time it takes to figure out what is being said, is making my reaction to the story more immediate, and delaying my critical/analyical reaction... I'm not sure that this is a coherent idea -- it is sort of tantalizing, to think that I can get into a younger, more naïve head by reading foreign language.

But in the end I think what is making the plotting of this story work, where I might find the same plot elements cornball in another context, is Unamuno's imagery, his descriptive voice. The reading of the story has felt up until this point like looking at dark paintings, there was a sense of claustrophobia imagining the characters as figures on dimly-lit canvasses -- so much so that when Carolina speaks out and orders the windows and balconies uncovered, I get the sense of her figure tearing itself away from the canvas -- this is an interesting image regardless of how much verisimilitude I'm prepared to accord the plot elements.

posted morning of September 27th, 2009: Respond

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

🦋 Lonely, immense

Here's a new line of attack for a problem that's been bugging me a little while; when I was reading The Stone Raft I was enchanted by the line, which Saramago attributes to Unamuno, "Fix your eyes where the lonely sun sets in the immense sea." Haven't had any luck figuring out where that line came from, if he's quoting an actual Unamuno poem -- I don't know what the Spanish being quoted (in Portuguese, and then translated) is, and the English does not seem to match up with any existing translations...

Tonight I had the thought, why not try writing something with that line as a starting point, and taking as read that it was from a poem of Unamuno's... A first try (and assuming this line of inquiry bears any fruit, some more updates as time passes) below the fold.

posted evening of October 18th, 2009: Respond
➳ More posts about José Saramago

Monday, October 19th, 2009

🦋 Barefoot Portugal

Found it! -- Many thanks to Deborah for sending me Unamuno's poem "Portugal" (an unpublished fragment), from which the line quoted in The Stone Raft is taken.

Portugal, Portugal, tierra descalza,
acurrucada junta al mar, tu madre,
llorando soledades
de trágicos amores,
mientras tus pies desnudos las espumas
saladas bañan,
tu verde cabellera suelta al viento
-- cabellera de pinos rumorosos --
los codos descansando en las rodillas,
y la cara morena entre ambas palmas,
clavas tus ojos donde el sol se acuesta
solo en la mar inmensa,
y en el lento naufragio así meditas
de tus glorias de Oriente,
cantando fados quejumbrosa y lenta.

Portugal, Portugal, o barefoot land,
nestled by the sea, your mother,
weeping lonely
over tragic loves
while the salty foam
bathes your naked feet,
your green locks loose to the wind --
locks of whispering pines --
your elbows resting on your knees
and your dark face between your palms,
cast your eyes where the sun goes down
alone in the immense sea
and in this slow shipwreck reflect
on your Oriental glories,
singing fados, plaintive and slow.
(Not making any claims about the quality of this translation -- it is done on the fly. If you have any ideas about how it could be improved, feel free to mention them in the comments.) It's a pretty poem -- in his (engaging) essay on The Rivers of the Douro Valley in Literature, Antonio Garrosa Resina notes that Unamuno composed it during a visit to Oporto in 1907. I'm a little uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of "junta al mar, tu madre" in line 2 and "soledades" in line 3 -- I must be mistranslating this -- not sure what the (plural) "soledades" is referring to but it can't be (singular) Portugal, who is next to her mother the sea... maybe it's "weeping over tragic solitary loves." (Also: is the "slow shipwreck" the sunset? I think Portugal's glories being "Oriental" is a reference to the subject of The Stone Raft, the treaty which gives Portugal imperial dominion over all lands to the east of a particular longitude, Spain over lands to its west.)

Well: this brings up a question for me about Pontiero's translation in The Stone Raft. The context is that José and Joachim have just met Pedro and the three are having dinner, watching the news on TV where they see images of people standing on Portugal's beaches looking at the oncoming ocean. Let's look at the Portuguese and Pontiero's rendering together:
Agora ei-los ali, como Unamuno disse que estavam, la cara morena entre ambas palmas, clavas tus ojos donde el sol se acuesta solo en la mar imensa, todos os povos com o mar a poente fazem o mesmo, este é moreno, não há outra diferença, e navegou. There they are now, as Unamuno described them, his swarthy face cupped in the palms of his hands, Fix your eyes where the lonely sun sets in the immense sea, all nations with the sea to the west do the same, this race is swarthy, there is no other particularity, and it has sailed the seas.
I'm not going to argue with italicizing the quoted portion and capitalizing its first letter, I mean it's not in the original but it reads fine; but how could "la cara morena" possibly be understood as referring to Unamuno's face rather than as part of the quotation? This makes no sense at all to me -- it's an interesting image but it can't be the image intended in the original passage. Note how "moreno" is used again referring to the Portuguese race -- this is the only distinction between them and other peoples with the sea to the west. Here's my attempt at an improvement, relying heavily on Pontiero for a sense of the flow of the passage:

There they are now, as Unamuno described them, Your dark face between your palms, cast your eyes where the sun goes down alone in the immense sea, all peoples with the sea to the west do the same, this one is dark-skinned, there's no other distinction, and has sailed the seas.

posted evening of October 19th, 2009: Respond
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🦋 Landscape physiognomy

While I'm thinking of it, a lovely passage from Unamuno's Por las tierras de Portugal y de España (quoted by Antonio Garrosa Resina in his essay on The Rivers of the Douro Valley in Literature):

Un río es algo que tiene una fuerte y marcada personalidad, es algo con fisionomía y vida propias. Una de mis más vivos deseos es el de seguir el curso de nuestros grandes ríos, el Duero, el Miño, el Tajo, el Guadiana, el Guadalquivir, el Ebro. Se les siente vivir. Cogerlos desde su más tierna infancia, desde su cuna, desde la fuente de su más largo brazo, y seguirles por caídas y rompientes, por angosturas y hoces, por vegas y riberas. La vena de agua es para ellos algo así como la conciencia para nosotros, unas veces agitada y espumosa, otras alojada de cieno, turbia y opaca, otras cristalina y clara, rumorosa a trechos. El agua es, en efecto, la consciencia del paisaje.

A river is something which has a strong, marked personality, is something with a life and physiognomy of its own. One of my strongest desires is that of following the course of our great rivers, the Duero, the Miño, the Tagus, the Guadiana, the Guadalquivir, the Ebro. To experience them. To take them from their deepest infancy, from their cradle, from the well-spring of their long arms, and to follow them through their falls and rapids, through their narrows and pools, through fields and river-banks. The vein of water is for them something like the conscience for us, sometimes foaming and agitated, other times full of mud, turbid and opaque, other times crystalline and clear, whispering along. Water is in effect the self-awareness of the landscape.
(This piece, and Resina's essay in general, reminds me a bit of Saramago's blog entry on Castril de la Peña.)

posted evening of October 19th, 2009: Respond

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