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If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale or when we exhale.

Shun Ryu Suzuki


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Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Appalachia, Lusitania

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.

    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"

    Such a clear, genuine voice.
  • 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.

    posted evening of November 21st, 2010: Respond
    ➳ More posts about Out of the Mountains

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Dreams and Heaven

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.

posted morning of May 18th, 2010: Respond
➳ More posts about Saramago's Notebook

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Blimunda searched for nine long years

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.

posted morning of July 18th, 2009: Respond
➳ More posts about José Saramago

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

To give meaning to all of this

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.

posted evening of July 14th, 2009: Respond
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Sunday, July 12th, 2009

Minor characters

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.

posted morning of July 12th, 2009: Respond

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Building his airship

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.

posted afternoon of July 7th, 2009: Respond
➳ More posts about Moomins

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Alchemy

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.

posted morning of July 6th, 2009: Respond
➳ More posts about His Dark Materials

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

O Voador

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.

posted morning of July 5th, 2009: Respond

Sete-Sóis e Sete-Luas

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.

posted morning of July 5th, 2009: Respond

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

B & B

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.

posted morning of July 4th, 2009: Respond

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