Thursday, December 18th, 2008
Ellen tells me she has gotten me two books for Hanukkah, both featured on this year's reading list: What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? by António Lobo Antunes, and The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. Thanks El!
Friday, December 26th, 2008
What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? is dedicated to the Renaissance poet Francisco Sá de Miranda, who Lobo Antunes says supplied the title of his book. Interesting! Sá de Miranda's work does not appear to be available online so tracking down the source is going to take a little legwork. The book is also dedicated to "Marisa Blanco for her pitiless friendship".
Aha! Found the sonnet in question, courtesy of blogger Gonçalo Figueirdo Augusto (whose blog incidentally shares its title with another of Lobo Antunes' novels -- and which he also publishes in English):
Desarrazoado* amor, dentro em meu peito,
* this is spelled "desarrezoado" on Sr. Figueirdo Augusto's blog and several other pages I've found; however I can only find "desarrazoado", "unreasonable", in the dictionary; and some pages have this spelling. So I don't know whether it's a typo or an obsolete spelling. "Unreasonable love" is definitely the correct meaning here.
Tem guerra com a razão. Amor, que jaz
E já de muitos dias, manda e faz
Tudo o que quer, a torto e a direito.
Não espera razões, tudo é despeito,
Tudo soberba e força; faz, desfaz,
Sem respeito nenhum; e quando em paz
Cuidais que sois, então tudo é desfeito.
Doutra parte, a Razão tempos espia,
Espia ocasiões de tarde em tarde,
Que ajunta o tempo; em fim, vem o seu dia:
Então não tem lugar certo onde aguarde
Amor; trata traições, que não confia
Nem nos seus. Que farei quando tudo arde?
Sunday, December 28th, 2008
Lobo Antunes does not use standard construction of language in What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? -- the story is being told in an extremely cryptic sort of stream of consciousness. I am interested in knowing whether there is a story being told. I know there are characters because Paulo (the narrator) refers to them by name and I can piece together what entity each name refers to even without the help of the Dramatis Personæ at the front of the book. There is a setting -- Paulo is in a psychiatric hospital in Lisbon, and is thinking about Lisbon. There appear to be events as well -- he returns again and again to a scene of himself laughing leaning against his father's coffin, and to (I think) his intake interview at the hospital, and I'm assuming for now that these things happened in the world outside his stream of consciousness.
But Lobo Antunes is giving me precious little to hold onto in justifying that assumption. The work is reading much more like poetry than like a novel. I am wishing for a supporting framework of some kind that would allow me to make sense of Paulo's ravings. Particularly it would be nice to have some syntactic clues: some paragraphs begin with em dashes, which appears to indicate a character is speaking; but some other paragraphs which do not begin with a dash sound a lot like dialogue as well. Some paragraphs are italicized, but there's as yet no clue how these are different from the non-italicized text.
Monday, December 29th, 2008
75 pages in I find that What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? is starting to come into focus, starting to cohere. I am finding it frustrating not to know things like how old Paulo was when his father died, when he was committed to the hospital, how old he is at the point in time when he's telling the story, ... But the book seems to work best if I just read and allow these details to emerge in their own due course.
Speaking at the ceremony where Lobo Antunes received the Juan Rulfo award this year, Robert Weil said, "Lobo Antunes presents life just as the brain really perceives things." This seems wrong to me -- the stream-of-consciousness in in this novel is just as much an artifice as is the structure of more conventional prose. It seems like it will be an interesting artifice, certainly, if I can ever get my head around it; for now I find it worrying, like I am not going to be able to recall the plot points when I need them a few hundred pages hence, when they are being presented in such a chaotic fashion.
Sunday, January 4th, 2009
So what am I thinking about What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?, which I have now read roughly a third of? Well first that too much of my reading experience with it has been asking myself what I'm thinking about it rather than doing the thinking about it... And maybe this is what I mean by calling it a difficult book, one that does not engage me, one that I have to struggle to engage myself in. I want to identify with Paulo, to get inside his head; and it seems like this should be easy -- Lobo Antunes' stream-of-consciousness seems to be intended as a straight-up portrait of the inside of Paulo's head.
So what's the difficulty? Primarily I think it is the absense of any narrative framework. What makes the stream-of-consciousness in e.g. Faulkner's The Hamlet so striking, is that you have a handle on what's going on outside Isaac's consciousness. I am also a bit troubled by the decision to have Paulo "narrating" this book from inside a mental ward -- I have certainly experienced my own reality the way Paulo is doing, as repetitive images from memory; and I am not sick. (Well maybe a little sick I guess -- but nothing that requires hospitalization...) If Paulo were more lucid I think there would be a lot more room for understanding the ways he has been damaged -- this could also get past the (unmet) need I'm seeing for an external narrator.
So: the book is not seeming to me like a successful one so far. But as I said, I'm in the middle of it -- I'm going to go on reading for the beaty of the language and images, and perhaps the fragmentary scenes Lobo Antunes is painting will come together into a story.
Tuesday, January 6th, 2009
I'd love to watch this discussion between Lobo Antunes and his translator. It occurred last September; the web site says (AOTW) that it's "coming soon", which hopefully just means there has been a delay getting it digitized and online. Fingers crossed!
I notice that Lobo Antunes has quite a significant body of work to his name before the current novel; I sort of knew this but was not (I think) taking it sufficiently into consideration. This probably means that my response to What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? is being hampered by a lack of familiarity with his catalog.
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