Sunday, November 21st, 2010
Three books I read this summer that I wanted to write about but didn't much of substance. Either of the first two would be great by itself, it was a real treat to read them both in succession.
- Stranger Here Below by Joyce Hinnefeld. This is Hinnefeld's second novel and seems like a real breakthrough. I liked In Hovering Flight a lot but it did not seem like a "masterpiece" the way I can picture talking about this book (once I get around to/figure out what to post about it).
- Out of the Mountains by Meredith Sue Willis.
I talk to Vashie on the phone and visit occasionally, but I never run her errands. I don't drive her to the doctor, and I don't pick up her groceries.
Such a clear, genuine voice.
Her daughter Ruth doesn't either, but Ruth is a classic agoraphobic, a direct result of having Vashie as a mother, in my opinion. Vashie was even worse as a mother than as a third grade teacher. We're all widows now, Vashie, Ruth, me, and my friend Ursula Rose, who was having the tag sale in front of her late husband's mansion the day Vashie came lurching toward us on her walker, pausing to rest when she thought we were watching.
-- "The Scandalous Roy Critchfield"
- The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago. This book seems almost the equal of Balthazar and Blimunda to me but I'm not sure how to back this up -- my plan was to write a review of it to submit to Quarterly Conversation or similar, but I got stuck on recommending it rather then writing about it. Really a sheer pleasure to read.
Tuesday, May 18th, 2010
How exciting! On the occasion of my birthday Saramago has posted a cryptic and tantalizing note on his blog (which he has retitled "Saramago's Other Notebooks"):
Aside from the conversations of women, it is dreams that sustain our world in its orbit...
The piece is a quotation from Balthasar and Blimunda... I don't know why he picked today to post it but it fits in nicely with my frame of mind today. So I will consider this (until proven otherwise) my birthday gift from Mr. Saramago.
Saturday, July 18th, 2009
In the course of reading the second half of Baltasar and Blimunda I had sort of begun to assume that the end of the novel would feature the cripple and the clairvoyant repairing Bartolomeu's flying machine and taking again to the air -- I have come to expect a romantic vision of Saramago's novels in which the protagonists transcend their gritty reality through love. (This is a little simplistic, and it certainly does not apply to every one of his books, but speaking very broadly it is a common feature of a lot of his fiction -- and it just seemed like it would be the natural ending for this book.) The fairy-tale imagery was making me expect a fairy tale.
Do not want to give away the ending, exactly -- I am recommending this book very strongly and it is always a better reading experience not to know just what's coming -- suffice to say that while the airship does fly again and while broadly speaking, the ending does involve the protagonists transcending their gritty reality through romantic love, it is much, much darker and less pat than what I was imagining.
Tuesday, July 14th, 2009
As in tales of yore, a secret word was uttered and before a magic grotto there suddenly arose a forest of oak trees that could be penetrated only by those who knew the other magic word, the one that would replace the forest with a river and set thereon a barge with oars. Here, too, words were uttered, If I must die on a bonfire, let it at least be this one, the demented Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço had once exclaimed, perhaps these bramble thickets are the forest of oak trees, this woodland in flower the oars and the river, and the distressed bird the barge, what word will be spoken that will give meaning to all of this.
This scene feels like a critical juncture. Baltasar and Blimunda have already been into the sky and back to land, back to Malfa and the drudgery and toil of building the convent, and now for the first time they are venturing together back to the wrecked airship. And suddenly Saramago is speaking in terms of a fairy tale and wondering what word can be spoken that will give meaning to all this. This passage illuminates his earlier efforts to give meaning to the labour of the six hundred men transporting a stone from the quarry to the construction site, by naming them and telling their story; it casts a subtle light on Saramago's project in telling this story.
Sunday, July 12th, 2009
There are other fellows too, named José, Francisco, and Manuel, very few named Baltasar, but many named João, Álvaro, António, and Joaquim, and perhaps even the odd Bartolomeu though never the one who disappeared, as well as Pedro, Vicente, Bento, Bernardo, and Caetano, every possible name for a man is to be found here and every possible kind of existence, too, especially if marked by tribulation and, above all, by poverty, we cannot go into the details of the lives of all of them, they are too numerous, but at least we can leave their names on record, that is our obligation and our only reason for writing them down, so that they may become immortal and endure if it should depend on us, ...
I'm noticing how well Saramago draws his minor characters -- in this chapter of transporting the huge stone for the convent's balcony, there are hundreds of workers, and those that he spends any time on come through very clearly and distinctly -- I'm thinking specifically of Francisco Marques, Manuel Milho (who I believe is a stand-in for Saramago), and José Pequeno. This passage is a funny piece of that, Saramago is lamenting that he does not have space and time to make characters of all the workers in this scene.
The Convent at Mafra -- I believe the balcony referenced here is the one at the center of the façade, above the main entrance -- behind the lamp post in this picture.
Below the fold, a bit of the story about moving this stone.
Let others testify who may know more than we do. Six hundred men desperately clinging to the twelve cables that had been fixed to the back of the platform, six hundred men who felt that with time and continuous effort they were gradually losing the stiffness in their limbs, six hundred men who were six hundred creatures terrified of being there, and now more than ever, for, compared with this, yesterday was child's play and Manuel Milho's story a fantasy, for that is all man really is, when he is only the strength he possesses, when his is nothing other than the fear that he might not be able to summon the strength to detain this monster that implacably drags him on, and all because of a stone that never had to be so huge, with some three or ten smaller stones the balcony could have been built just as easily, even though we would no longer have been able to tell His Majesty with pride, It is made from a single stone, or to tell visitors before they pass into the next room, It is made from a single stone, and by means of these and other foolish vanities, absurdities become rife, with all their national and individual characteristics, such as the following statement one reads in manuals and history books, The Convent of Mafra was built by Dom João V in fulfillment of a vow he made should God grant him an heir, here go six hundred men who did not make the Queen pregnant yet they are the ones who pay for that vow and carry the can, if you will pardon that old-fashioned expression.
Tuesday, July 7th, 2009
Another point of comparison for Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço that hit me this morning, as I was reading about Signor Scarlatti proposing to bring his harpsichord aboard the Passarola, is Moominpappa in Moominpappa's Memoirs -- holed away in his retreat, working at the pleasure of the whimsical monarch, building a mystical flying vessel... Interesting how Baltasar and Blimunda is bringing children's books to mind.
Monday, July 6th, 2009
In a funny way Baltasar and Blimunda is reminding me of The Golden Compass. Obviously far more is different between the two books than is similar; the passage that initially made me think of comparing the two was Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço's statement that he believed Blimunda would be able to see people's will if she looked:
I have never seen their will, just as I have never seen their soul, You do not see their soul because the soul cannot be seen, you have not seen their will because you were not looking for it, What does will look like, It's like a dark cloud, What does a dark cloud look like, You will recognise it when you see it,... -- so he is looking for Dust to power his airship! That makes sense... There are some other parallels I could draw between the two works; the opposition to the Catholic church, clearly -- though Saramago's anti-Church streak is far less strident than Pullman's -- and something else as well, some similarity of atmosphere that I haven't been able to pinpoint.
Sunday, July 5th, 2009
I'm glad Pontiero has included a translator's note with Baltasar and Bimunda (as he did with The History of the Siege of Lisbon) -- it is nice to have at hand the information that Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão is a historical figure -- I could think of his story as being the initial piece of this novel, the love story of the two principal characters woven around it. Also: pictures! Nice to have an idea what the man looks like. I hadn't come up yet with a mental image of him... I had started picturing the airship, and it looked a little bit like what the engravings show, as far as general shape; the details are great.
Saramago's books are strongly united by the common voice and diction; but reading each of them is its own distinct experience. So far the experience of Baltasar and Blimunda is one of overpowering physical beauty; it feels a little bit like some of Faulkner's or García Márquez' work, the kind of fractally detailed painting that draws you in and gets you lost in its details. This is very different from some of Saramago's later work, which I've approached in more of a top-down way, thinking about abstract ideas in the novels and relationships between the characters as the primary element of the story. It gives me less to write about; the experience of being overwhelmed by beauty, while a lot of fun, is not something I have the writerly chops to describe in an engaging way. (It is still early in the book though, something more on my blogging wavelength may come along.) I can totally see how this would be good material for an opera, hope it gets produced in NYC sometime.
Saturday, July 4th, 2009
Yesterday I finished The History of the Siege of Lisbon and started reading Baltasar and Blimunda (wonder why the translation has this title; the original is called something like Memoir of the Convent) -- not much to say about it yet besides I loved the sex scene between João V and his queen -- especially nice in with the memory fresh of the very different sex scene between Raimundo and Marie Sara; Saramago can certainly write sex scenes! -- I wanted to note that this is the only of Saramago's novels to be made into an opera, by Azio Corghi, with a libretto written by Saramago himself. Corghi and Saramago also collaborated on the opera "Divara, Wasser und Blut," based on Saramago's play "The Name of God." And more music: Rudolf Kämper composed a chamber music suite called "Baltasar & Blimunda."
I am happy to be reading these two novels set in Portuguese history now, I think they are going to be good ones to have fresh in mind when I start reading The Elephant's Journey -- I haven't seen a publication date for that yet but have my fingers crossed it will happen before the year is out.
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