Saturday, June 21st, 2008
I've really enjoyed Dr. Holbo's couple of recent posts about Plato's cave allegory, and I was happy to read today that Saramago has a novel about (or "which touches on") the allegory -- it is his The Cave, translated in 2002.
Monday, June 30th, 2008
I met Ellen and Sylvia for dinner this evening in Montclair -- Sylvia started art camp at the Montclair Art Museum today, where she is happily learning how to draw animals. In one of her classes they are doing a group project, a sculpture of Huckleberry Finn -- Sylvia has never read it, so while we were eating we decided to swing by our favorite bookstore and pick up a copy... of course it is hard to leave there without a bunch of books. Our haul:
- Huckleberry Finn
- Tom Sawyer -- nice to have this on hand for when she's read Huck Finn -- it is a lesser book of course, but I remember it being a fun read.
- The Prince and the Pauper, to round out the kid-friendly Twain selections.
- The Golden Compass -- people keep recommending this to me; I should take a look. Sylvia is loving the Harry Potter books these days, and this seemed like it would be in a similar vein.
- Teddy Roosevelt -- Sylvia's pick (after she found out that no, we're not buying Dragonology today), from a series of biographies of important Americans. Teddy Roosevelt is, she explained, her favorite president: I'm not totally clear on whether this is because 26 is her favorite number, or vice versa.
- The Cave -- my pick.
Thursday, July 10th, 2008
That was when Cipriano Algor said, Don't worry, we'll get there on time, I'm not worried, replied his son-in-law, only just managing to conceal his anxiety, Of course you're not, but you know what I mean, said Cipriano Algor. ...The Cave has been sitting on my shelf for a little while now begging to be read; finally this afternoon I heeded its call and brought it along, on the train ride to the city. (I met Sylvia and Ellen to listen to Deedee reading some wonderful, funny memoirs.)
Cipriano Algor started up the van. He had got distracted by the buildings under demolition and now wanted to make up for lost time, a ridiculous expression if ever there was one, an absurd idiom with which we hope to disguise the harsh fact that no time once lost can ever be made up or recovered, as if we believed, contrary to this evident truth, that the time we thought forever lost might, after all, have decided to hang back and wait, with the patience of one who has all the time in the world, for us to notice its absence.
Saramago's prose pulls me along like nothing else -- the onrush of words won't let me go. It reminds me a little of Gaddis' style, except I think Saramago does it much more successfully than Gaddis. The length of sentences forces you as a reader to keep more context in mind at any moment; but it is not a brute-force thing. The timing is just exquisite, the way each sentence moves through phases: building, droning, falling, building, and the sudden surprising punch of the period. (This is of course partly a testament to the abilities of the translator, Margaret Jull Costa.)
Also: I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but I'm really taken with Saramago's ability to transform clichéed adages into profound, surprising truths, simply by exploring their implications.
Friday, July 11th, 2008
Saramago is very clearly conscious of what he is doing with our clichés, what I was talking about yesterday:
Authoritarian, paralyzing, circular, occasionally elliptical stock phrases, also jocularly referred to as nuggets of wisdom, are a malignant plague, one of the very worst ever to ravage the earth. We say to the confused, Know thyself, as if knowing yourself was not the fifth and most difficult of human arithmetical operations, we say to the apathetic, Where there's a will, there's a way, as if the brute realities of the world did not amuse themselves each day by turning that phrase on its head, we say to the indecisive, Begin at the beginning, as if beginning were the clearly visible point of a loosely wound thread and all we had to do was to keep pulling until we reached the other end, and as if, between the former and the latter, we had held in our hands a smooth, continuous thread with no knots to untie, no snarls to untangle, a complete impossibility in the life of a skein, or indeed, if we may be permitted one more stock phrase, in the skein of life.
He may be permitted one more. He uncovers the veins of meaning over which these phrases have calcified.
Just a note: I'm so happy to see there is a dog as one of the characters in The Cave: the Dog of Tears was a huge piece of Blindness and of Seeing, and I'm glad to see Saramago including a dog in his cast here as well.
...And no sooner do I post about how glad I am to see the dog in this story, than I read a chapter narrated mostly from Found's point of view. It is very sweetly done, too.
Doubtless because he was still green in years, Found had not yet had time to gain clear, definitive, formed opinions on the importance or meaning of tears in the human being, however, considering that these liquid humors are frequently manifest in the strange soup of sentiment, reason and cruelty of which the said human being is made, he thought it might not be such a grave mistake to go over to his weeping mistress and gently place his head on her knees. ...From this moment on, Marta will love the dog Found as much as we know Cipriano already loves him.
Saturday, July 12th, 2008
Yesterday I was browsing around the webs for reactions to The Cave, and found this lovely essay by Scott Esposito. Turns out it's part of Esposito's blog Conversational Reading, which appears to be composed exclusively of well-written, well-reasoned reflections on literature and on Esposito's current reading. A-and that's not all! He also edits a web zine called The Quarterly Conversation. Current issue has (among other good things) a review of Vonnegut's posthumous collection Armageddon in Retrospect and an essay about Macedonio Fernández, mentor to Borges.
Tuesday, July 15th, 2008
When I was just getting started on Blindness, I wrote that Saramago's style of rendering dialog was "dismissive," and threatened to make his characters "sound like automata." I don't think that was exactly right (although it may have accurately described my impression at the time) -- based on how completely human his characters seem to me. But I want to pick at this for a bit and figure out what is my impression of Saramago's dialog -- it has certainly struck me as one of the most important aspects of his novels.
Allow me to quote some portions of a conversation between Marta and her husband, Marçal, about Marçal's parents wanting to come live with them. Sorry about the ellipses, the passage is too long to quote in full:
What's wrong, asked Marta, suddenly uncertain, Nothing important, just a few niggling little problems, At work, No, What then, We have so little time together and yet they still won't leave us alone, We don't live in a bell jar, I dropped in at my parents' house, Did something happen, some complication. Marçal shook his head and went on... I said that we were intending having your father to live with us when we moved..., You told them that, Yes, but they took no notice, they practically started yelling at me and crying, well, my mother did, my father's not really the sloppy type, he just protested and waved his arms around a lot, what kind of a son am I, putting the interests of people who aren't of the same blood over the needs of my own progenitors, they actually used the word progenitors, heaven knows where they found it..., And that was the final word, To be honest, I don't know if it was or not, I've probably forgotten a few others, but they were all out of the same mold. ...Marçal said, I know a son shouldn't say things like this, but the fact is I don't want to live with my parents, Why, We've never understood each other, I've never understood them and they've never understood me, They're your parents, Yes, they're my parents, and on one particular night, they went to bed, happened to be in the mood, and I was the result... Marta took Marçal's left hand, held it in hers, and murmured, All fathers were sons once, many sons become fathers, but some forget what they were and no one can explain to the others what they will become, That's a bit deep, Oh, I don't understand it myself really, it just came to me, pay no attention, Let's go to bed, All right. They got undressed and lay down. The moment for caresses came back into the room and apologized for having spent so much time outside, I got lost, it said, by way of an excuse, and suddenly, as sometimes happens with moments, it became eternal. A quarter of an hour later, their bodies still entwined, Marta said softly, Marçal, What is it, he asked sleepily, I'm two days late.
What is it? -- It seems to me the dialog has a certain fuzzy quality, you are constantly reminded that it is the narrator who is speaking, not the characters. But you get the impression that he is a faithful and a sympathetic narrator, that his paraphrase captures accurately the rhythm of language as spoken and heard by his subjects. In most novels, dialog serves in part to crystallize the scene, to bring sharply into focus what is happening and whom it's happening to; the dynamic in Saramago's novels is kind of the opposite -- dialog pulls the lens back and mutes the focus. You identify with the characters but with the understanding that you are identifying with the narrator's descriptions of them, and thus with the narrator.
Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008
Coincidence: the two times this year I have gone to the beach, I've taken along a book by Saramago -- he works really well for a relaxed read, lying in the sun. I'm not sure what it is exactly -- he's very "heavy" -- it takes a lot of thinking and re-thinking for me to get it. But the sun and the sand seem to help that along.
A couple of nice bits from this weekend's reading, below the fold:
...It would help to clear my head too, so why don't we both go and pick Marçal up, and Found can stay here to guard the castle, If that's what you want, Don't be silly, I was just kidding, you usually go and fetch Marçal and I usually stay at home, so long live usually, No, seriously, we can both go, No, seriously, you go. They both smiled, and the debate on the central question, that is, the objective and subjective reasons we usually do what we do, was postponed.
Indeed, whether we mix water and clay, or water and plaster, or water and cement, we can cudgel our brains for as long as we like to come up with a name that is less vulgar, less prosaic, less common, but always, sooner or later, we come back to the word, the word that says all there is to say, mud. Many of the best-known gods chose mud as the material for their creations, but it is hard to know now if that preference represents a point in mud's favor or a point against.
We have already mentioned the fact that many anthropogenic myths made use of clay in the creation of man, and anyone moderately interested in the subject can find out more in know-it-all almanacs and know-it-almost-all encyclopedias.... There is, however, one case, at least one, in which the clay had to be fired in the kiln for the work to be considered finished. And then only after various attempts. This singular creator, whose name we forget, probably did not know about or did not have sufficient confidence in the thaumaturgic efficacy of blowing air into the nostrils as another creator did before or would do later, indeed, as Cipriano Algor did in our own time, although with the very modest intention of cleaning the ashes from the face of the nurse.
I might just as well drive the van into a wall, he thought. He wondered why he didn't do so and why he probably never would, then he listed his reasons. Although inappropriate in the context of his analysis, after all, being alive is, at least in principle, the main reason why people kill themselves, the first of Cipriano Algor's strong reasons for not doing so was the fact of being alive...
Also -- I got a chance to read some passages to Sylvia, mainly involving the adoption of Found by Cipriano and his daughter, and she seemed really into it. Sylvia thinks Found is better behaved than Pixie.
Friday, July 25th, 2008
It is not worth describing what Cipriano Algor thought about because he had thought it on so many other occasions and we have supplied more than enough information on the subject already. The only new thing here is that he allowed a few painful tears to run down his cheeks, tears that had been dammed up for a long, long time, always just about to be shed, but, as it turned out, they were being reserved for this sad hour, for this moonless night, for this solitude that has not yet resigned itself to being solitude. What was truly not a novelty, because it had happened before in the history of fables and in the history of the marvels of the canine race, was that Found went over to Cipriano Algor to lick his tears, a gesture of supreme consolation which, however touching it might seem to us, capable of touching hearts normally not given to displays of emotion, should not make us forget the crude reality that the salty taste of tears is greatly appreciated by most dogs. One thing, however, does not detract from the other, were we to ask Found if it was because of the salt that he licked Cipriano Algor's face, he would probably have replied that we do not deserve the bread that we eat, that we are incapable of seeing beyond the end of our own nose.
A dog licking tears from the face of a crying human is a central image in Saramago's work, as much as I've read of it so far anyway. And it is touching -- the other times I've read sequences like this, they have touched me as symbolizing the depth of connection between the dog and his master. But another way of looking at it that is occurring to me now, is how painfully lonely, to be weeping in a place where there is no other person present.
(The clause after "truly not a novelty" strikes me as funny in a sort of self-referential way -- it could be rendered, "What was truly not a novelty, because it had happened before in books I have written,...")
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