Saturday, February 14th, 2009
An experience that I've had many times: I am browsing in a bookstore (usually by the shelves marked "Fiction" or as the case may be, "Classics"), pulling down titles that intrigue me, looking at quotes on the back jacket or the inside front cover, first sentences, etc. After a little while of this I get into a rhythm, the browsing is what I'm doing, I melt into the bookstore a little... and then some new book that I've never heard of before pops into my hand, and it suddenly seems like just the right thing for me to read.
Today I was looking in the new bookstore in Maplewood and found a book which I had never heard of, and which seems like just the right thing. It is Night Train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier (a Swiss author with a French name, who writes in German) -- the three epigraphes are from Jorge Manrique, Michel Montaigne, Fernando Pessoa. (The Montaigne quote is especially to my tastes -- "We are all patchwork," it begins, and ends, "There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.") The initial sentence has a slightly formulaic whiff about it: "The day that ended with everything different in the life of Raimund Gregorius began like countless other days." -- But it is a formula that has worked on me many times, and I have high hopes for this time.
Monday, February 16th, 2009
A passage from Night Train to Lisbon that has me thinking about AWB's post about relating to texts -- it's an interesting sentiment and I'm trying to figure out what kind of person would hew to it. Not something I can imagine myself believing.
Spanish -- that was her territory. It was like Latin and completely different from Latin, and that bothered him. It went against his grain that words in which Latin was so present came out of contemporary mouths -- on the streeet, in the supermarket, in the café. That they were used to order Coke, to haggle and to curse. He found the idea hard to bear and brushed it aside quickly and violently whenever it came. Naturally, the Romans had also haggled and cursed. But that was different. He loved the Latin sentences because they bore the calm of everything past. Because they didn't make you say something. Because they were speech beyond talk. And because they were beautiful in their immutability. Dead languages -- people who talked about them like that had no idea, really no idea, and Gregorius could be harsh and unbending in his contempt for them. When Florence spoke Spanish on the phone, he shut the door. That offended her and he couldn't explain it to her.
Sort of a romantic view of languages and of classicism. I'm really liking Mercier's composition, and Barbara Harshav's translation. I haven't found any entry point for self-identification -- for "relating" -- with the text yet; but it is still very early in the book.
Tuesday, February 17th, 2009
Of the thousand experiences we have, we find language for one at most and even this one merely by chance and without the care it deserves. Buried under all the mute experiences are those unseen ones that give our life its form, its color, its melody. Then, when we turn to these treasures, as archæologists of the soul, we discover how confusing they are. The object of contemplation refuses to stand still, the words bounce off the experience and in the end, pure contradictions stand on the paper. For a long time, I thought it was a defect, something to be overcome. Today I think it is different: that recognition of the confusion is the ideal path to understanding these intimate yet enigmatic experiences. That sounds strange, even bizarre, I know. But ever since I have seen the issue in this light, I have the feeling of being really awake and alive for the first time.Aha! No wonder Night Train to Lisbon has been seeming familiar in structure to me -- it is built on a similar foundation to The White Castle. It is going to be way less cryptic though, a third-person narration and we have access to the Book that Gregorius is reading. (I wonder how it is going to work out, for Gregorius not to understand Portuguese?)* This is going to be fun...
"That's the introduction," said the bookdealer and started leafing through it. "And now he seems to begin, passage after passage, to dig for all the buried experiences. To be the archæologist of himself. Some passages are several pages long and others are quite short. Here, for example, is a fragment that consists of only one sentence." He translated:
Given that we live only a small part of what there is in us -- what happens with the rest?
* Ah: he is buying a Portuguese textbook.
Thursday, February 19th, 2009
For some reason I had been operating under the assumption that Night Train to Lisbon was Pascal Mercier's first novel. That is not true, it's his third (following Perlmann's Silence and The Piano Tuner; and he has a fourth novel, Lea) -- however it's his first and so far only work to appear in English translation. Writing under his real name, Peter Bieri also has two philosophical texts, Time and Experience of Time and The Handicraft of Freedom, and a paper "What Remains of Analytical Philosophy?"
I've been sort of keeping in mind, as I read this book, that the author is a philosopher. That is making me look for philosophical argument underlying the text -- I'm not sure how valid this is as an approach to the book, it could quite possibly make me miss the forest for the trees.
Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness.
It makes me kind of happy, as Gregorius is browsing through Simões' bookshop (in Chapter 8 of Night Train to Lisbon), to see how many of the titles and authors I recognize -- this is starting from slightly more than a year ago, when José Saramago was broadly speaking, the first Portuguese author I had ever heard of. The amount of reading I've done in this literature is still pretty sparse; but I've gotten a chance to familiarize myself with the names and identities of a lot of the important touchstones, it looks like.
Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet
I said before that I was not really identifying with Gregorius, and that's still true -- I was thinking tonight though, it's funny I don't -- some aspects of his situation have parallels to aspects of my own life, I think; seems like if I tried, I ought to be able to put myself in his shoes. And curious -- in the last book I read, Elizabeth Costello, I also found that I was not "relating" to the text that way. My feeling about this is that both Coetzee and Mercier have a very different type of voice -- at a first approximation, "more cerebral" -- than much of what I've been reading in the last few years. It could also be that I'm moving in a different direction as a reader. This is difficult to quantify; I'm just going to leave it out there for the time being.
Sunday, February 22nd, 2009
Mariana Eça's office in the Alfama quarter was half an hour's walk. It took him four hours. It began with him sitting down whenever he found a bench, sitting and changing his glasses. With the new glasses the world was bigger and for the first time, space really had three dimensions where things could extend unhindered. The Tagus was no longer a vague brownish surface, but a river, and the Castelo de São Jorge projected into the sky in three directions, like a real citadel.... In a little park, he took out Prado's notes and tried out the new glasses.Reading Night Train to Lisbon last night, I realized I was moving my lips to sound out the words -- this surprised me as I have not done such a thing in many years, since grade school. And then I realized oh, I was just reading Borges oral, where I have to move my lips to sound out the foreign words; and it made me wonder how much this new drive to learn Spanish is affecting my relationship with my mother tongue.
O verdadeiro encenador da nossa vida é acaso -- um encenador cheio de crueldade, misericórdia e encanto cativante. Gregorius didn't believe his eyes: he hadn't understood any of Prado's sentences so easily: The real director of our life is accident -- a director full of cruelty, compassion and bewitching charm.
I definitely experience the book differently when I am focusing on the sound of the words, rather than primarily on their meaning. I think there is something of value in this type of reading.
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