Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Jean Giono and Arnold Bennett, Together at Last: Two Group Reading Announcements

I'm happy to announce two upcoming group reading events and hope that others will join in for one or both.

First, in the final week of May, Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau blog and I will co-host a group read of Jean Giono's short novel, Hill (or Colline, for those of you who might want to read it in the original French). I've been eager to return to Giono, and thus jumped at Dorian's suggestion that we read this together. Hill has just been issued in English translation by New York Review Books, and as it's only about 100 pages long, you know you can read it by the week of May 24-31, when we'll start posting commentaries.

Second, and also stemming from a suggestion by Dorian late last year that followed on my year-end appreciation of two Arnold Bennet novels I'd read, we will take up Bennett's best-known work, The Old Wives' Tale, in late July. This one's some 600 pages longer than Hill, but if it's anything like the Bennett books I read last year, it promises to be a highly amusing ride. We'll announce a specific date as we get closer to July. 

If you're interested in joining for either or both of these group reads, please let us know!

“My desire was paralyzing” – Federigo Tozzi’s Love in Vain

It’s a wonder that I even read Love in Vain, a collection of short stories by Sienese writer Federigo Tozzi (1883-1920), as everything about the book - starting with the discouraging title and lugubrious cover - seems almost deliberately primed to bring the reader down. The table of contents too reveals several more dismal titles, like “To Dream of Death” and “Vile Creatures.” Going into the text itself, one finds more than a few leaden, dramatic pronouncements like the one I’ve used in the title of this post. And to top it all off, the tales by this devotee of Gabriele D’Annunzio explore a similar fascination with decadence and with the intersection between love and death, with subjects that promise a wallow through human misery. Indeed, Tozzi’s stories are filled with stunted hopes, failed love affairs, economic insecurities, and repressed, simmering anger that occasionally erupts with grievous consequences. Characters in not a few of the stories come to bad ends, including suicide, murder and cruel accidents, as in “Dead Man in the Oven,” in which a vagabond accustomed to sleeping in an unused oven neglects to realize one night that the baker has put the oven to use that day, with consequences evident from the story’s title.

With all this cheerfulness in the offing, one could hardly be faulted for harboring low expectations, but Tozzi’s stories defy pigeon-holing. The occasional infusion of Christian mysticism in these tales; their palpable, evident excitement in exploring the new field of psychology; and their singular style and careful construction seem nearly incongruent with their dark themes, revealing a writer certainly as devoted to the art of the short story as to reveling in the obscure mechanisms of human behavior. Love in Vain is one of the finest short story collections I've read in a long time.

The 20 tales included in the volume  - all from between 1908 and 1919, twelve years of productivity cut short by the influenza epidemic in 1920 - range across numerous subjects, linked by an astute psychological realism and portraits of passionate persons engaged either in succumbing to or surmounting their emotions. The zeal with which Tozzi approaches psychology is obvious in stories like “Mad for Music,” in which the narrator explicitly announces that “Through the observation of the typical characters you might come across, especially on the streets of small cities or towns, you can greatly enrich your understanding of life,” and then proceeds to assert the need to study especially those who, “by the grace of fate’s outrageous excesses – manage to set themselves apart from social norms.”  The story concerns a young man, Roberto Falchi, who, following a case of meningitis, loses “all trace of intelligence,” but, as in an Oliver Sacks case study, becomes obsessed with music and convinced he is a great musician. In “Vile Creatures,” an unnamed observer in a brothel eavesdrops on the talk between five of the girls during an idle moment, as they trade stories of their tragic pasts and dreary present, their hopes (or lack thereof) for the future. In “Poverty,” the narrator rests his tale squarely on the emotional instabilities caused by money worries in the relationship between a poor accountant and his wife and stepmother. “House for Sale” depicts an extreme case of submission and self-abasement when a property owner is cowed by unscrupulous buyers into letting his home go for next to nothing. In “The Boardinghouse,” the relationship between two elderly neighbors who over the years share small talk in the hallway between their rooms but otherwise fail to connect is revealed as an intractable and terrible dependence when one of them sickens and dies. A similar social distance appears in “First Love,” perhaps the tale most indicative of Tozzi’s modus operandi. Over a mere six pages, the affection of two schoolchildren for one another is tested over several ensuing years; readers expecting from the title something heartwarming will be disappointed to find instead a tale of young people attracted and ultimately repelled by timidity, jealously, and the boy’s immature fits of pique, leaving the characters at a greater distance than they were at the story’s beginning.

Tozzi’s stories, while driven by an interest in psychology, occasionally wander into imaginative territory that flirts with surrealism. “The Crucifix” begins with a disorienting description of a scarcely-formed primordial world:

I thought: a world of God’s creation is left unfinished. Its matter is not alive, not dead. The vegetation is all identical in this world, and the rough sketches of formless beasts are unable to move out from their muck because they have neither legs nor eyes.

The plans in this world cannot be distinguished by their color – because they have none. This world would also have its own odor – but only when spring is approaching; and so it’s a rather muddy smell. Adam is there, too – a rough version of him – he has no spirit, no soul. He cannot talk or see, but he feels the mire around him moving, and it frightens him.

There is neither a sun nor a moon. This world lies in the loneliest corner of infinity, where there are no stars, where a lone comet goes to die, as if in exile. This half-life is more ancient than our own.

This peculiar flight of imagination offers no hint that the story will actually turn on the fate of a wretched, abused girl of the streets as well as on the narrator’s conflicting desires both to protect and rescue her from such a terrible state and to avoid being seen as just another abuser. “The Idiot” is an even more imaginative effort, in which Tozzi attempts to relay the inner thoughts of a retarded child. This might in itself have been a novel experiment for someone writing at beginning of the 20th century, but Tozzi complicates the idea further by having the child relay his thoughts through transference via an imaginary conversation between the King of Spades and Queen of Hearts, playing cards the child finds in the yard, dampened by rain. The contrast between the violent extremes of thought that run through the child’s head and the placid, drooling face the rest of the world sees is dramatic. And in “The Clocks,” a tale that seems part-Poe, part-Ionesco, the death of a collector of clocks is accompanied by the clocks’ slowing down and stopping, one by one.

Despite their being highly artful, Tozzi’s stories, like the those of Giovanni Verga (and decidedly unlike those of D’Annunzio), eschew references to literature, avoiding “the veils and imposition of literary artifice.” Books appear only a few times in this collection, as in “Mad for Music,” where the mentally-damaged Roberto Falchi’s best friend is “an eccentric” who, having “lost his mind two years earlier,” writes “a book or two a day…filling the pages with delirious ramblings.” In “The Miracle,” a man dwelling on death is awakened by an encounter with a Madonna hanging in his room and suddenly begins to devour every book he can find, reading “until he couldn’t breathe, and his eyes couldn’t take anymore.” The peculiar treatment of literature by Tozzi is also visible in “Vile Creatures,” when one of the girls questions another:

Frenchie asked Sara, “What are you reading?
“A novel.”
“Is it good?”
“So-so,” answered Sara, careful not to reveal how she felt about the book.
“Who’s the author?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you look?”

Translator Minna Proctor’s informative introduction suggests that Tozzi, though long admired by his followers such as Alberto Moravia, is only beginning to receive more widespread recognition as one of Italy’s great modern short story writers. In addition to 120 short stories, he wrote five novels as well as poetry, plays and essays, though is perhaps best known in Italy for Novale, a collection of Tozzi’s correspondence with his life-long partner Emma Palagi, collected by her after his death and supplied its curious title, a neologism, by Luigi Pirandello. And while a few of his novels have been translated into English, Love in Vain appears to be the only collection of stories available so far. It’s a pity, since Tozzi’s stories possess a freshness and contemporaneity that make them seem as though they could have been written recently, rather than 100 years ago – models of the kind of limited scope, minimalist, restrained slices of slightly distorted life to which so many writers today aspire. And in the end the tales may not be as dark as they at first seem. When in “A Miracle” the bookish main character convinces himself that “with delicious certainty, deep inside, he was a child,” we’re treated to a kind of benign lunacy, a man who revels in watching water, envisioning creatures dancing along the wind-blown grain, and in hugging trees – a solipsistic madness, true, but an affirming one.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Journal of the Plague Years: Mario Bellatín's Beauty Salon

At a mere 63 pages, Mexican author Mario Bellatín’s novella Beauty Salon (Salón de Bellezza, 2000) seems more expansive than many works ten times its size. This is still more surprising given the limited raw materials with which Bellatín works. The book contains a single overarching allegorical conceit – a beauty salon turned into an informal hospice. Accompanying this rather grim bass line, like a wandering melody, is a symbolic motif: the salon owner’s management of various aquariums he’d installed during the salon’s heyday. By presenting such a delimited world, Bellatín can drop into his narrative, in the way his salon owner adds brilliantly-colored fish to his tanks, small signifiers that have space to swim around and amplify their presence.

We never get to know the name of this compelling first person narrator, who recounts to us steadily, in an almost methodologically controlled tone, the transformation of his business from a popular women’s salon run by drag queens into a hospice for men dying of a plague. He has adapted the space, replacing the hair dryers and other salon equipment with cots, keeping the aquariums. Socially he is alone except for his “guests,” though he wistfully recalls his drag queen friends – “the only friends I ever had” - who died “long ago.”  That his clients are mostly young gay men and that their symptoms suggest opportunistic infections obviously alludes to the AIDS pandemic, and Beauty Salon should easily find a place among the roster of powerful fictional engagements with AIDS. But by keeping the disease imprecise, Bellatín’s book acquires allegorical power.

We don’t get to know much about the narrator’s clients either, some of whom die quickly while others hang on. The narrator keeps an emotional distance from them, ministering to their needs but avoiding attachment, with one exception, a small tear in his veil of stoic professionalism, about which he harbors regrets. He operates under the radar, refusing the presence of doctors and offers of help from a religious charity, and in fact prohibiting medicines, prayer and religious materials in the salon. The only donations accepted are “money, candy and bedclothes.” Even visits from relatives and lovers are forbidden. He also has to fight off antipathy from not-in-my-backyard neighbors who don’t want a hospice full of sick homosexuals in their midst. The neighborhood itself is dangerous enough as it is, afflicted by intractable poverty and by the vicious “Goat-Killer Gang” responsible for innumerable murders. Throughout Beauty Salon one senses an external neglect and indifference as regards the dying, such that the salon – while far from being anything akin to an oasis – at least provides a place for those who otherwise would be left to die under bridges and on the street. And of course, the narrator himself is ill.

Providing some color in this atmosphere at once oppressive, claustrophobic and even apocalyptic, are the narrator’s aquariums. Initially placed in the salon as a means of giving the clients something to watch while getting their hair done, the tanks now ostensibly provide some solace to the dying, though most of the clients seem oblivious to their presence. The narrator himself feels guilty over the money spent on the fish, and, in the fish store, at being “surrounded by all that life.” But regardless of the impact of this attempt to bring color and life to the dying, it’s clear that the space would be qualitatively different without such an effort. Even if the “guests” exhibit little appreciation, attending to the fish helps sustain the narrator.

As I’ve mentioned before, they are resistant and despite the minimum amount of care I give them they have managed to hold out, some dying while others are born. The water, though, isn’t very clear anymore. It’s taken on a greenish tinge, fogging up the glass walls of the aquarium. I’ve placed this fish tank somewhat away from the guests. I don’t want their rot to reach the water; I don’t want the fish to be infected with any fungus, virus or bacteria. Sometimes when no one is looking I put my head into the fish tank and I even go so far as to touch the water with the tip of my nose. I breathe in deeply and it feels as if life emanates from the water. Despite the smell of stagnant water I can still feel a certain freshness.

Increasingly the aquariums suffer under the weight of responsibility and the narrator’s own illness, the fish struggling to survive in much the same way as the narrator’s clients.

Thanks to the Caravana de Recuerdos blog’s months-long Mexicanos perdidos en México [Mexicans Lost in Mexico] reading challenge, I happened to read Beauty Salon around the same time I read Juan Rulfo’s classic Pedro Páramo. Otherwise I might have missed Bellatín’s evocation of his predecessor’s novel. Beyond the similarities in both books’ concern with that central Mexican obsession, death, and the presence in both of spectral lives hovering almost indistinguishably between life and death, Bellatín also echoes Rulfo’s ability to conjure a whole country, to use a simple conceit to provide a striking portrait of Mexican torpor and indifference. One discerns, in the epidemic and in the milieu of general social neglect, a dystopia. Bellatín’s setting evokes Mexico City and its lost, interminable streets, the pervasive influence of drugs (one client recounts having been a drug smuggler), the heavy threat of violence and an affliction of self-interest. The disease is coming from inside the house in Bellatín’s devastating image of contemporary urban Mexico.

But the most powerful aspect of Beauty Salon is its constant and careful modulation of the entwined systems of care the narrator exhibits towards his dying “patients” and to the fish in his aquariums,  a microcosm and reflection of the world outside the aquarium glass and gestures both moral and aesthetic in response to calamity, imperatives which, like the creation of art, can remain largely mysterious even to the one effecting them.  Bellatín’s minimalist novella, an extraordinary feat of concision, seems itself a kind of small aquarium, allowing a gaze into the manner in which those afflicted by poverty and illness are neglected, how violence is endemic, how minimal displays of courage and responsibility can reveal the poverty of institutional efforts, all underlined by both the incredible resilience of those, human and fish alike, determined to cling to life. The reader too becomes a kind of witness and caretaker, forced to probe his or her own responsibility. Pulling my head outside of Bellatín’s small book, I could not help but be struck, as when I emerged from Albert Camus’ The Plague (with which Beauty Salon has many parallels) by the fragility of social relations and the terrible vulnerability of those at the margins, the profound loneliness of dying, and the potential impact of even the smallest and must humble gesture aimed at creating something of beauty in a grim world. If, as has been asserted, contemporary Mexican literature may itself be in a rather grim state at the moment, Bellatín’s powerful little novel amply demonstrates that it still holds flashes of beauty, alive and deserving of urgent attention.