Friday, December 16, 2011

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

“Nervous, incompetent, dowdy and shy.” Possessed of these self-descriptive and self-denigrating attributes, impediments to life of enjoyment or promise, Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, the heroine of Winifred Watson’s charming 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, wrestles with the unexpected events of a singular, transformative day that begins when she answers an employment announcement for a nursery governess – a last chance to save herself from the poorhouse.

Before I get to the meat of Miss Pettigrew (cooked precisely à point), I feel obliged to mention Persephone Books, a London-based publisher who has put out Miss Pettigrew plus some 90 other volumes, all but a handful by women, providing an invaluable service of rescuing from oblivion writers like Winifred Watson. These are lovely editions. Jorge Luis Borges, in one of his Norton lectures, “This Craft of Verse,” comes across, perhaps inadvertently, as dismissive of the physical book. I understand perfectly what he means, but since reading his essay I've held a quiet and unfair grudge against his omitting a nod to this craft of bookmaking (unfair, as he probably appreciated book arts as much as anyone, given his history of immersion in libraries). I like well-made books. I like the smell of them, the way they feel in my hands, the artistry involved in putting them together, and the work of a talented designer. And while I’m grateful to wonderful teachers, friends, reviewers and bloggers for showing me the way to many terrific works of literature, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also credit book designers - including the person who came up with the cover for the first English language paperback edition of Borges’ own Labyrinths (ah - her name is Gilda Kuhlman. Isn’t the Internet convenient? Thank you, Gilda.). Labyrinths was one of many cherished books of my adolescence that I picked up solely by judging their covers. So while indeed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (and any other work of literature) may well live for more than a day regardless of the form of its presentation, I’m sorely tempted, whenever I write about a book, to include in my review, as did Paul Lukas in his now sadly defunct magazine “Beer Frame,” an assessment of the book’s physical attributes: the heft, the number of pages, the typeset, the quality of the paper, and perhaps most importantly in this physical realm, the quality of its cover design.

The high quality of the design of Persephone Books is noticeable immediately. They’re basically trade paperbacks, but the paper in these editions has a weight and solidly reminiscent of that one can find in pre-war books. Each volume also comes with a handsome grey minimalist dust jacket, discreetly hiding beautiful end papers drawn from old textile and wallpaper patterns. The one gracing the interior cover of Miss Pettigrew is a dress fabric dating from the year of the novel’s publication[1]:

Leaving aside these material attractions, Miss Pettigrew also won me over, even before I’d started reading it, by what must count as one of the great tables of content among all the works in my personal library:

Thus, one knows right away that the action of the book (at least up to the last chapter) unfolds in a single day. For all the certainty of this timeframe, the action is anything but determined, as it’s in fact built on one surprising adventure after another. These unexpected events allow for a flood of new experiences for Miss Pettigrew and new opportunities for Watson’s sharp observations on gender relations, class and social conventions, and the upkeep of appearances. They also draw out of Miss Pettigrew talents unknown even to herself, capabilities that - without, I hope, giving too much away (this is, after all, a classic ugly duckling story, so the direction of the plot, unlike the events that punctuate it, is fairly predictable) - begin their work of transformation by giving her greater confidence, self-respect, and liveliness.

“Liveliness” might describe the chief aesthetic quality of Watson’s writing. Though her novel is a something of a bagatelle, and takes minor faux pas in a few places (for example, elements in Miss Pettigrew’s interior monologues sometimes cross signals with the third person narrator, creating an unintended trick of narrative perspective that a magician might have trouble duplicating), the narrative sparkles, particularly in Watson’s whip-snap smart and crisp use of dialogue, which on occasion manages to incorporate so much unspoken communication that it comes across like a Mantan Moreland skit in which the characters know so well what one another will say that they don’t even need to completely articulate their thoughts.

That Miss Pettigrew calls to mind Hollywood is hardly accidental. Miss Pettigrew could, in fact, be considered a Hollywood novel despite its British setting and author. One need hardly learn that Guinevere Pettigrew’s chief source of amusement is the cinema to recognize that the novel is distinctly patterned after 1930’s screwball Hollywood comedies – like something penned by Philip Barry or directed by Howard Hawks or Leo McCarey - down to its star-like secondary characters and the glamorous life they lead in stark contrast to the banality from which Miss Pettigrew has suddenly emerged. And like the films on which it is patterned, Miss Pettigrew provides enough high-quality entertainment to allow one to live for a day – or at least for a few hours.

I loathe doing in a review what I’m about to do almost as much as I loathe finding in a book something like what I’m about to mention, but there’s a black mark against Watson’s novel, one of those faults so deflating as to impact one’s appreciation of the novel’s other eminently commendable qualities, and that is a perceptible anti-semitism made all the more unfortunate by its entirely gratuitous presence. It appears in only two brief instances, but one of them suggests a disheartening defense of racial purity. Given that the novel was written in 1938, three years after the Nuremburg laws and when the flight of tens of thousands of Jews from Germany was already well-known, the gratuitousness of this attitude is particularly galling. But this fault apparently didn’t keep Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day from becoming immensely popular upon its publication, and nor should a 21st century sense of political correctness keep today’s readers away.  Aside from the poverty barely kept at bay in the novel’s opening pages, this reactionary element may be the one revealing glimpse - in this impossibly romantic, perceptive, tremendously entertaining comedy - of the darkness lying just outside the novel’s bright escapism.

[1] Apparently, Persephone has also released Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in a “Persephone Classics” edition, which appears – from my squinting at the tiny image of it on the Persephone Books web site - to be marred by a prominent advertisement for the movie version of the book that came out in 2008.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beautiful Days

Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer who, at his death in 1984, left instructions expressly prohibiting publication of his works in Austria for a full 70 years after his death, includes in his novel Correction a slightly less than flattering assessment of his homeland:

Austria, this most misunderstood country in the world, this country more problematical than any other in all world history…this state that was economically more decrepit than any other, which had nothing left, apart from its congenital imbecility, but its hypocrisy…once the center of Europe [Austria] was…no longer anything but a rummage sale of intellectual and cultural history, an unsold remainder of government merchandise…every Austrian is born to failure…his so-called homeland is actually, for him as for so many others, nothing but a horrible lifelong punishment for existing, for the blameless act of having been born in the first place…

This eviscerating passage might have served as an epigraph for the stunning short novel Schöne Tage (1974, translated into English by Anselm Hollo as Beautiful Days) by Bernhard’s Austrian contemporary Franz Innerhofer. Innerhofer may not provide quite as explicit a condemnation as Bernhard, but the picture he portrays of Austria works its way even more infectiously under the skin, a relentless catalog of recriminations that point an accusing finger at the “brutality and neglect” that mark the society Innerhofer depicts. It would be difficult to imagine a work with a more cuttingly ironic title.

Set in the economic wreckage of the years immediately following World War II in the farming country in Austria’s north, Beautiful Days, Innerhofer’s first novel and the first volume of a trilogy, begins with a curious opening line:

Torn away from the care of a childless woman, Holl suddenly found himself transplanted in an alien world.

Over the next few paragraphs, we are able to put the line in context, recognizing that Holl, Innerhofer’s vulnerable young protagonist, has in fact only recently been born (his birth coinciding approximately and symbolically with the end of World War II). Holl might as well not have come into the world, however, given what proceeds from his initial experience of being “torn away,” for the following pages depict an almost endless stream of abuses heaped upon the poor, illegitimate child. This initial separation from a “childless woman,” his caretaker for his first two years, is but the first of several wrenching dislocations. His next years are spent in wretched poverty with his mother, distinguishable from other adults chiefly by her being “the one who spanked him more often than any of the others,” and a neglectful stepfather, who has led “an unimaginably hard life from childhood on,” in Holl’s youth occupying the social status of disgraced former Nazi, “a pariah, full of inarticulate rage” (“inarticulate rage” is a recurrent phrase that characterizes the state of most of the adults in Beautiful Days). At age six Holl, essentially a welfare charge, is abruptly shunted off to live on Farm 48 in Haudorf in northern Austria with the father he’s never known, a brutish lug referred to in the novel only as “The Farmer,” and a cold stepmother, “The Wife.” Their identification by social role underscores his new guardians’ functional, passive-aggressive behavior towards Holl, whom they treat as little more than a nuisance and slave, and who seems to exist only “in terms of chores to be performed.” His new family simply replaces one set of abusive adults with another (Haudorf proves an apt name for the area in which Farm 48 is located, as the word’s root literally translates as “beaten down”). Holl is thrust into backbreaking farm work scarcely fit for an adult, let alone a mere child, and spends his long days in mud and manure, in fields and stables, valued beneath the livestock and, at home, berated and beaten into submission. The abuses Innerhofer catalogs in Beautiful Days brutalize the reader as well in both their individual occurrences and their cumulative effect, and it is only Holl’s inner resistance and instinctive sense of the injustice of it all – as well as Innerhofer’s tremendous talent as a writer - that makes the novel bearable in the least.

The starkly unsentimental, largely realist style of Beautiful Days leads the reader through Holl’s bleak daily cycle of bedwettings, physical and psychological abuse, hard labor, and unwelcoming home life, punctuated for the most part only by the oppressive heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter, by accident and death among the other workers and the livestock (calamities apathetically absorbed by the adults as though they were inevitabilities). Despite this gritty realism, Innerhofer also strings Holl’s tale onto a frame that allows his story to be seen as both particular and universal; Holl’s sufferings are not simply his own, but represent those inflicted by the failures of society as a whole. Innerhofer directs his condemnation of the treatment Holl receives not only at its immediate perpetrators but also at the institutions that allow such barbarities against children. Thus Holl’s anticipation that these institutions will intervene in some way to lessen his oppression meets with repeated disappointment. A burgeoning hope that mandatory schooling might provide an escape valve, that “homework…would liberate him from labor” (an almost certainly deliberate reformulation of the “Arbeit macht frei” of Hitler’s camps), evaporates as school quickly reveals itself as simply another piece of the machinery designed to keep children like Holl from attaining personhood, just another place where adults feel free to strike and degrade him. The church acts as an equally dehumanizing institution, designed to enforce ideology and conformity rather than provide solace or alleviate suffering. The ineffectual visits from child welfare officials, who fail to look beyond social surfaces carefully polished by adults eager to put the best face forward so as to mask the daily brutalities they inflict, reveal a welfare system abjectly derelict in its duties.

Innerhofer employs several remarkable narrative elements in Beautiful Days to enhance and deepen Holl’s riveting story. In his depiction of Holl’s earliest years, action is largely reduced to gesture, to a kind of high contrast, minimalist presentation of reality that reflects a young child’s frustrated efforts to make sense of a confounding world that values him for little more than his capacity for work and as the most handy target for the “inarticulate rage” vented by adults. Innerhofer’s stark, bleak descriptions, in his account of Holl’s early childhood, are strikingly minimalist and colorless, and his characters, in these first pages, seem almost silhouettes, as in the powerful work depicting scenes of American slavery by visual artist Kara Walker. But a brilliantly evolving narrative style develops along with Holl’s own growth in consciousness and self-awareness. The early monochromatic, silhouetted world gradually gives way to one richer in awareness and detail - albeit no less impoverished in quality of life. Holl’s sense of himself as self, as well as his initial stirrings of rebellion, long in coming, commence when the concept of suicide first occurs to him. His abrupt, stunned realization of this possibility of escaping his misery through his own agency is followed mere paragraphs later by the first instances of first-person narration to appear in the novel. A slow-motion explosion of self-awareness follows as the development of Holl’s young mind is paralleled by a perceptible increase in Innerhofer’s rendering of depth and detail as well as by periodic bursts of first person narration (that there are so pitifully few of these, however, only underscores Holl’s primary and anguishing sense of himself as an object). Despite the world’s coming into richer, more comprehensible focus, Holl’s miseries continue unabated, though the sharpening of his mind does provide him some minor triumphs in learning how to resist, neutralize, or exert some modicum of resilience over the abuses heaped upon him. However incremental, these small victories lead Holl to reject the option of suicide as it would only benefit his oppressors, who “could step over me and go on humiliating and tormenting people like me without hesitation.”

Innerhofer also employs an intensely effective kind of dialectic in the use of third person narration that juxtaposes and entwines simple, childlike sentences – “Every morning began in pain;” “It was still August;” “The train moved much too slowly;” “The train went much too fast” – with those of an omniscient narrator reporting and interpreting Holl’s life through adult retrospection. The result is a complex narrative style that allows a reader to be simultaneously inside Holl’s childhood world and outside it as a mature, almost clinical observer. An unusual tone is achieved through this variation, one that combines the straightforward simple storytelling of a children’s story or fable (one not entirely without humor) with the critical insight of a consciousness evaluating the fable as it’s being told.[1] Another notable narrative element is Innerhofer’s frequent use of italicized words and phrases. These serve to stress - like an insistent finger tapping the chest of the society Innerhofer charges with so many reprehensible failures - the fundamental aspects of Holl’s situation that could have been altered to make his life better. They’re used not so much to scold as to resolutely and with overwhelming force of conviction cast light on injustices and educate ignorance, serving as controlled, focused remonstrations without overt emotion but nonetheless brimming with indignation. At the same time, Innerhofer uses these italicized phrases to identify and dismantle the language of oppression, to take it apart at a linguistic level. For example, in Holl’s musing at the way the society characterizes suicide, one such phrase – that so and so “put an end to it” – becomes an expression Holl sees as a consensual, passive acceptance of suicide, as though it were an act completely independent of exogenous, societal influence, a failure of the individual having nothing to do with its social context.

One of Innerhofer’s great achievements in Beautiful Days is a careful balance between Holl’s particular, grim situation and its generalizability even beyond the period and its Austrian setting and institutions. The field labor in which Innerhofer’s characters are engaged might stand in for any kind of menial, coercive labor. The cruelties displayed by those around Holl could be found in other oppressive environments. And the indignation aimed at those responsible is leveled not simply at the malice of individuals, but at an entire society that expresses an almost autonomic neglect of its most sensitive and vulnerable members. The patterns of brutality and neglect so pervasive in Beautiful Days become a condemnation not only of Austria, and not only of the country’s noxiously acquiescent conformity perhaps most dramatically highlighted by its nearly unanimous support of Hitler’s Anschluss (references to historical particulars are certainly not absent in Beautiful Days, but are kept at a minimum), but of all societies that rest on their failure to rise above the most expedient social interactions and decline to treat kindness, generosity, and, especially, the care of children and cultivation of talent, as fundamental priorities. Innerhofer’s most severe criticism targets these failures across an entire society to exert agency and responsibility, to combat the accepted and the unacceptable.

There is a generous element in Innerhofer’s “lessons” (one that appears to distinguish it from Bernhard’s unmitigated wrath); it may not be forgiveness exactly, but there is at least a value placed on understanding that the cultures’ deficiencies descend from the contributions of poverty, institutional weaknesses, and a lack of education and opportunity. Part of the power of Beautiful Days derives from its acknowledgement of the psychology of brutality and neglect, its recognition of cycles of abuse and of economic and other factors contributing to the behavior of the society, at the same time refusing to allow these factors to absolve actors of their responsibility. One of the novel’s most breathtaking scenes involves the sudden appearance on Farm 48 of Helga, a no-nonsense worker who sees with piercing clarity, as does Holl, the injustices of the culture, but who unlike Holl has the fearlessness to refute them at every turn. Confronting The Wife one night, Helga smashes a bowl in an act both castigating and educating, forcing The Wife to recognize that human beings - who are not, after all, bowls to be shattered - should not be treated as though they were. Helga’s short stay at Farm 48 is the first genuine glimmer of hope in Holl’s miserable existence, the first real model for resistance that life has offered him, and a vindication of his own conviction that the behavior directed at him has been a matter of inexcusable injustice (as well as an austerely beautiful moment in the novel - Innerhofer acutely depicts the ability of children to know justice and injustice as a matter of the behavior around them while also recognizing their need for adult affirmation of these convictions). 

Beautiful Days leads the reader to a simple yet radical conclusion encapsulated in what is perhaps the most significant milestone in Holl’s personhood, his apprehension “that it could have been different, all of it.” With this brief line, this explicit rejection of the status quo, Innerhofer obliterates excuses and justifications, reorienting the wretchedly deficient adult world to a measure of morality like that asserted by Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ The Plague in Rieux’s refusal “to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” I know of nothing quite like Innerhofer’s achievement in Beautiful Days, the clear-sightedness with which, in such a short novel, he is able to illuminate so vividly the unjust waste of years of a child’s life (that the novel is apparently largely autobiographical may explain much of the visceral realism of the scenes Innerhofer describes), while at the same time delivering a blistering reproach of an entire society’s participation in that injustice. One emerges from Beautiful Days wanting nothing less than to insure the reality of that ideal set forth by John Dewey, that what the wisest and best parent wants for his or her child is what the community should want for all of its children.

In the end, the caustic irony of Innerhofer’s title may be more complex than it at first seems. An incisive sarcasm is intended, to be sure, but at the same time the title also acknowledges the beauty occasioned by Holl’s rare moments of happiness and wonder, of hope and of humanity, in the context of his otherwise crushing, mean life. And it must surely celebrate, without irony, the path to liberated selfhood that a sudden opportunity provides to Holl, one that mimics, in its autobiographical element, Innerhofer’s own escape from an inexorable and laborious childhood to pursue his becoming a writer. Perhaps, too, the title may be a poignant and pointed acknowledgment of the writer’s essentially aestheticizing role in his alchemical transformation of difficult experiences into art, and a subtle reminder that behind the fiction, there’s a real world where such unconscionable behaviors take place. It’s shattering to learn that this author who lived as well as created such a defiant and resilient young character would, in 2002, submit to suicide. After reading Innerhofer’s indelible, devastating novel, one is hard put not to think of that as Austria’s failure - and as our own as well should we not aspire to make, of all of our days and for all in the wide scope of our care, something beautiful.

I read Beautiful Days as part of German Literature Month, kindly hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and by Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, and am grateful to them both for this opportunity to become familiar with Franz Innerhofer’s amazing work for the first time.

[1] Someone with a far better knowledge of Austrian literature than I might be able to determine whether this “anti-fable” is an intentional refutation of the romantic, moralizing work of Innerhofer’s Austrian predecessor, Adalbert Stifter; in both Beautiful Days and in Bernhard’s Correction one finds disparaging allusions to Stifter, something I might not have noticed had I not coincidentally read his Rock Crystal some months prior to reading Correction).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Canaviais no vento

“All books are stupid, there’s never much truth in them, still I’ve read a lot over the last thirty years, I haven’t had much else to do, Italian books too, all in translation of course. The one I liked most was called Canaviais no vento, by someone called Deledda, do you know it?”

- Antonio Tabucchi, The Woman of Porto Pim (1982)

As a matter of fact, I did not know Canaviais no vento (1913) nor its author, Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), but a mention of any work of literature in a book by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi almost inevitably sends me off to track it down – and bait like the above was completely irresistible. One seldom knows, however, when one writer mentions another writer so obliquely, whether or not a compliment is intended. In Tabucchi’s enchanting story the title is given in Portuguese (the original Italian title of Deledda’s novel is Canne al vento, rendered as Reeds in the Wind in the English translation by Martha King), as the speaker of the passage is a singer in a bar in the Azorean port city of Porto Pim who tells the visiting Italian writer an intimate tale of his youth, one with some relevance, it turns out, to the Deledda novel he so admires. Nonetheless, I took Tabucchi’s bait, and much to my surprise chomped down on a surprisingly lyrical, moving and unusual novel - authored by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1926) no less.

With a title as naturalistic as Reeds in the Wind - and indeed, the title refers to the main character’s assertion that people “are like reeds in the wind…We are the reeds and fate is the wind” - one might have reason to expect a banal slog through romanticized, deterministic peasant life, but from the first pages Deledda’s novel proves a humanistic and intensely lyrical work of intimate, strong emotions; intricate moral struggle; the complexities of caste, power and poverty; and the quest for meaning and redemption.

Set in a small village just inland from the east coast of Italy’s island paradise of Sardinia, Reeds in the Wind is largely a novel of the poor and the aged. The main character, Efix, is an elderly servant on what remains of what was once a large farm belonging to Don Zame and his four daughters, the Pintor sisters. We learn early on that one of the daughters, Lia, escaped the island many years before, leaving behind her three sisters and an enraged and shamed father who, during his search for his escaped daughter, had been found dead one morning, perhaps of a stroke, though a small mark on his neck suggests that something else – a malevolent island spirit, or perhaps a more human intervention – might have been to blame. Lia’s disappearance, however, has not been altogether complete; shortly after her decampment, a letter from mainland to her sisters had assured them she was well, and, as the novel opens 20 years after her departure, the sisters have received another letter announcing the imminent arrival in the village of their nephew, Lia’s now grown son, Giacinto. In a small and superstitious community like this, the mere receipt of the letter is enough to cause concatenating ripples. And as the novel unfolds, Giacinto’s visit – and his struggle between duty and dissipation - is recounted through the impact it has throughout the village and the devastating consequences it holds for the sisters and for Efix.

Deledda captures beautifully the overlapping of emotions built up over decades between people who live in tangential relations and who have a long history of buried feelings towards one another bespoken by only the most laconic of communications. As well, she captures the weight of such uncommunicated emotions and of the poverty that presses upon Efix and the Pintor sisters, who have seen their holdings decline steadily until they themselves are threatened with direst poverty. As though to mock their fall, the ruins of an ancient baron’s castle dominate the valley in which they live. Deledda’s characters are replete with human frailties and weaknesses, spiritually and psychologically deformed by the poverty, superstition, and guarded, buried emotions that mark their lives, bent like reeds before the wind by the vicissitudes of events that they see as beyond their control.

With its acute attention to the landscape and to the cultural practices of the inhabitants of the region, Reeds in the Wind might easily have slipped into a sort of anthropology of Deledda’s native Sardinia, and there are certainly strong ethnographic elements in the novel, especially in the various festivals and saint days that provide glimmers of joy in the villagers’ otherwise mean existence. Particularly fascinating are the various superstitions and spirits believed in by the inhabitants, who have managed to keep such beliefs alive despite a strongly superimposed Catholic faith (I was reminded immediately of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s observation of polytheism’s generous ability to welcome and absorb new religious traditions). But Deledda’s intentions are not so shallow as to simply give us a portrayal of village life in Sardinia. Her plot unfolds with constant surprises and unexpected turns of event, and levels its focus at the shifting attempts of Efix to establish meaning and free himself from guilt in a pitiable life circumscribed by poverty, loneliness, and neglect. Perennially well-intentioned, Efix’s most charitable efforts often lead to unintended calamities; on top of this his fundamental goodness holds a dark secret. Attempting to balance what little he has in life with a sense of his own inner worth (continually undermined by the sisters, who see him as a mere servant despite his being closer to them than anyone else in the village), his benign attempts to be heard, to be recognized as good in others’ eyes, lead him drifting into an untethered, almost picaresque, searching life implicative of Christ’s wanderings in the desert (though considerably more handicapped by the infirmities and indignities of age). That Efix is a Christ figure is altogether obvious, even from the cross that ends his name, but Deledda is far too humanistic and subtle a writer to allow this memorable character to be in any way diminished by his employment in symbolic service.

If human communication is constrained and sublimated in Reeds in the Wind, it seems to find its outlet in the rich manner by which the natural world is invested with imagination and life. What’s perhaps most evocative in Deledda’s novel is her obvious infatuation with Sardinia’s landscapes; everything is alive in this novel (an occasional, subtle shifting of tense from past to present helps enhance this vitality). The crepuscular light casts into sharp relief a world that is magical and mysterious, and not a little frightening. Each plant or flower seems imbued with spirit. Each shadow is alive. The night that sees the human world constrict and contract into safety behind doors also sees, in the world outside, a wild explosion of animation, beauty and mystery:

Efix remained motionless, waiting. The moon rose before him, and evening voices told him the day had ended: a cuckoo’s rhythmical cry, the early crickets’ chirping, a bird calling; the reeds sighing and the ever more distinct voice of the river; but most of all a breathing, a mysterious panting that seemed to come from the earth itself. Yes, man’s working day was done, but the fantastic life of elves, fairies, wandering spirits was beginning. Ghosts of the ancient Barons came down from the Castle ruins above Galte on Efix’s left and ran along the river hunting wild board and fox. Their guns gleamed in the short alder trees along the river bed, and the faint sound of barking dogs n the distance was a sign of their passing. Efix could hear the sound that the panas – women who had died in childbirth – made while washing their clothes down by the river, beating them with a dead man’s shin bone, and he believed he saw the ammattadore (the elf with seven caps where he hid his treasure) jumping about under the almond woods, followed by vampires with steel tails.

A more careful reader than I might, as an experiment, apply some basic astronomy to Deledda’s wanton literary use of the moon, which seems to leap full into the sky nearly every night to cast its eerie and encompassing glow over the countryside and sea.  I hope I don’t in any way diminish Deledda’s accomplishment by comparing this attention to the landscape to the early fabulations of quasi-anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, whose melding of fiction with fact in ethnographic treatment of practices of sorcery among the Yaqui Indians of Mexico’s Sonora desert contains, for all its obviously kitsch elements, a stirring and memorable evocation of landscape and light as almost living entities with hidden powers. The same sort of vital and mystical atmosphere pervades Deledda’s (mercifully) more sophisticated writing, and the world cannot but look different and more sentient to a reader emerging from her captivating descriptions.

In her introduction to the English translation of Reeds in the Wind, Sardinian ethnographer Dolores Turchi notes that Grazia Deledda wrote of her native Sardinia from a “veiled” nostalgic distance, and suggests that this distance provides a somewhat romanticized, fabulist vision of the island and its inhabitants. Turchi also notes the irony of Deledda’s retrospective affection for this community, which had always been “severe” in its judgment of her:

When barely launched on her writing career the harsh criticism of relatives and townspeople…had blocked her literary vocation for some time. Good girls did not write stories and novels to be published for all the world to read, whose characters could be cause for ridicule.

In order to write, Deledda left Sardinia at an early age for mainland Italy, ultimately settling in Rome, where she was to spend most of the rest of her life. It is difficult to absorb this history without seeing, in the escaped Lia, an image of the author herself in the story. Though taking place 20 years prior to the point at which the novel begins, Lia’s flight acts as the novel’s chief precipitating event, one that governs the subsequent actions of the novel’s characters.  Efix’s good-hearted, protective championing of her escape seems to make of Lia an unusual secondary main character, never present (at least not in the flesh – though she appears to Efix occasionally as a kind of trick of light and shadow) but constantly hovering above the novel like a kind of resonating overtone, an overarching presence. She appears to serve as a token of Deledda’s own courage in fleeing the island to carve out a life for herself as a writer, an unusually modernist autobiographical artifact inserted into the novel as an explicit, gentle and forgiving riposte to the community she lovingly depicts in the novel’s fatalistic and insular characters. Though the novel vividly communicates the psychological complexities of this community, it also expresses a distinctly self-reflexive awareness of the writer as observer, raconteur and servant to the articulation of the unarticulated. It’s easy to see how Tabucchi’s own raconteur might have come to value Deledda’s novel above all of the “stupid” books he’s read.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Of Violins and Volcanoes

The Violins of Saint Jacques, a 1953 novella of some 140 pages, stands out by virtue of its claim to fame as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s sole work of fiction. Those familiar with Fermor’s many outstanding travel books will know that this is true only at a slant; his other works, based in fact and rich in historical and cultural detail, include passages of prose capable at any moment of blowing up like splendid dust devils of imagination into whirls of fantasy and poetry that entwine with the fictional realm. As though an experiment in inverse manner, Violins weaves into its fictional narrative a wealth of factual and historical detail equal to that in any of Fermor’s non-fictional works, as though he’s chosen to use the mold itself rather than the model, providing us a kind of negative of his usual approach such that the fictional elements dominate. The result is a baroque confection of rare concentration, compression and color in which the fiction is created parallel to an actual historical event, such that the full force of the event itself – the catastrophic eruption of Mount Pelée on the Caribbean island of Martinique on May 2, 1902, which purportedly killed all but one of the island’s 30,000 inhabitants – resonates in a way that an actual historical account never could (or should).

Fermor uses a framing mechanism to tell the story: the novel’s narrator, while on the Greek island of Mythilene, encounters one Berthe de Rennes, an elderly, worldly traveler and amateur painter who eventually tells him the extraordinary tale behind one of her paintings, a depiction of a smoldering volcano dominating an island town where a grand ball is under way. Essentially, the tale Berthe tells is that of the Mount Pelée disaster, though Fermor has elected to shift the site of the catastrophe to the fictitious island of Saint Jacques des Alisés, imaginarily located to the east of Guadalupe, Marie Galante and Dominica, and the date of the catastrophe – while still in 1902 – to Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). Berthe, while still a young woman, has quit the continent and moved to the island for adventure, welcomed as governess by a branch of her family, the Serindans, who own much of the island’s wealth. While the early part of the novel details Berthe’s installation and introduces the novel’s cast of characters, much of the narrative centers on the elaborate ball that takes place on the island the night of the catastrophe and which Fermor depicts in page after page of characteristically glorious Fermoresque description. This must surely rank among literature’s greatest parties, and includes a lovely passage summing up the experience that a great fête can convey:

A ball is almost a short lifetime in itself. Everything that happened beforehand retreats, for the time being, into a kind of pre-natal oblivion and the world waiting for you when you wake up next day seems as vague and shadowy as the eternity that waits beyond the tomb. Like somebody’s life, the ball goes on and on and the incidents stand out in retrospect like a life’s milestones against a flux of time whose miniature years are measured out in dance tunes.

The party presents a grand vision of the world in all its complexity, with all the island’s inhabitants participating whether landowner or slave, seafarer or farmer, wealthy scion or banished leper. Love affairs unfold; enemies reconcile; duels are arranged; and a great myriad of events large and small take place amid the night’s dancing, dining, theatrics and intrigues. Fermor’s tale unfolds with the skill of a born storyteller. One could be forgiven for mistaking The Violins of Saint Jacques for one of Isak Dinesen’s densely rich tales. As in those tales, the pleasure lies not so much in plot or outcome but in the manner of the telling.

As in his other works, Fermor frequently employs various elements of the epic, which in Violins lend the novella a grandness that its brevity might otherwise be unable to convey. Principle among these is the epic catalog, a favorite Fermor device, and one which he puts to extensive use here, including a genuinely hilarious vision of the room of one of the novella’s most memorable characters, the lively writer and commander of the sloop Beauséjour, Captain Henri Joubert, who inhabits, during his respites on the island, a veritable cabinet of curiosities gathered from across the globe and painstakingly cataloged by the narrator.  In like manner, Fermor delights in this wildly inventive list of names of guests invited to the ball (should anyone ever write a treatise on the list as literature, Fermor should surely merit at least a chapter):

…the Solignacs of Triste Etang, the Vauduns of Anse Verte, the Tharonnes  of Morne Zombi, the Vertprés of Battaka and Bombardopolis, the Chaumes of Carbet du Roi, the Cussacs of Ajoupa, the Rivrys of Allégresse, the O’Rourkes of Bouillante, the Kerascoët-Plougatels of Cayes Fendus, the Fains of Noé des Bois, the La Mottes of Piton-Noir, the Fertés of Deux Rivières, the Flour d’Aiguesamares of Sans Pitié, the Montgirards of Morne Bataille, the Chambines de la Forest d’Irvy of Pointe d’Ivry and the La Popelinières from the strange named acres of Confiture; Hucs, Dentus, Pornics, Médards, Vamels; here and there a visiting cousin from another island - a de Jaham or a Despointes from Martinique, a du Boulay from English St. Lucia…

That Fermor did not write more fiction is unfortunate, for The Violins of Saint Jacques more than proves his capacity for it, and the sheer delight he takes in language gives the novella an almost delirious atmosphere of exaltation that manages to overwhelm the horror of catastrophe (about which philosophy is kept to a respectful minimum). The island sinks beneath the seas, taking with it its glittering human world in the full flush of both celebration and the courageous or nefarious machinations going on in the shadows beyond, serving as a moral warning for human effort in the face of indifferent powers beyond human control (“as wanton as the blows and tramplings of some immense and muscular idiot”). While the novella comes across as more of an entertainment than a serious treatise on human impotence in the face of raging nature, the harrowing description of the volcano’s sudden explosion and the realization of all the human complexities that it sweeps away present a nonetheless sobering vision of the nothingness beyond death and of the fragility of humanity. In the end, Fermor’s fictional, disappeared island lives on primarily in the mariners’ poignant superstition that lends the novel its title, the sounds of violins and voices they claim sometimes to hear coming from beneath the expanse of water at the site of the disappeared island. There is, however, one other place where life on this fictional island continues, one that Fermor would most certainly have found amusing. In response to various on-line inquiries about the most beautiful place in the Caribbean, someone has posted, on numerous Internet travel forums, a response with which, after having read Fermor’s novel, one would find it difficult to argue. Without question, asserts this clever Internet poster, it is the magnificent Beauséjour Marina and Resort, located on the tiny private island of Saint Jacques des Alisés, somewhere vaguely in the vicinity of Guadalupe and Domenica

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir: Rosa Candida

Improbably, Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Rosa Candida (2007, French translation by Catherine Eyjólfsson, Éditions Zulma, 2010) is the third contemporary Icelandic novel I’ve read this year, following Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s lyrical and moving Heaven and Hell and Sjón’s (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson’s) shaggy, showy, wildly poetic cabinet of curiosities, From the Mouth of the Whale. Both of those last books, as unusual and inventive as I found them, are novels of the sea, self-conscious riffs, at least in part, on folkloric fishing sagas of what I’ve come to think of, with nothing uncharitable intended, as the “god and cod” variety. As though announcing a deliberate departure from this staple of Icelandic writing, the beginning of Rosa Candida casually notes that Ólafsdóttir’s appealing narrator and main character, the 22-year-old Arnljótur (fondly referred to by his father as “Lobbi”) has just finished a stint working at sea himself, but is leaving all that behind, and in fact leaving Iceland behind, headed for warmer climes and an atypical, rather un-Icelandic career path: that of rose gardener.

It’s not a choice altogether encouraged by Lobbi’s kindly father, who doesn’t see it as an auspicious direction for a young man, and who would prefer not to lose the company of his son following the recent accidental death of his wife, Lobbi’s beloved mother, who instilled in her son his love of plants – particularly of the rare eight-petaled white rose species known as rosa candida. Lobbi himself seems to lack a clear idea of what he’s doing; nor are we, as readers, entirely privy to his motivations. Along with his bereft father and a mentally disabled twin brother, Lobbi also leaves behind a newborn daughter, the inadvertent offspring of Lobbi’s casual, one-time tryst with Anna, a woman who has told him quite explicitly that she needs and expects nothing of him in the way of paternal responsibilities. And so, with little left tethering him to home other than the telephone lines he uses to update his elderly father on his pilgrim’s progress, Lobbi quits Iceland and these few important people in his life, with no convincing assurance to the reader that we’ll see any of them again.

What subsequently unfolds is a simply told story recounting Lobbi’s journey to the continent to a remote monastery where he’ll occupy himself with the rehabilitation of its famous rosarium – and where, subsequently, the major life events he’s just lived through – his mother’s death and his incidental fatherhood - catch up with his impulsive and altogether innocent flight from them.

There is little that’s dazzling in the language of Rosa Candida, no ravishing lyrical passages or unforgettable lines or great pearls of wisdom, no innovative narrative structure or daring literary experimentation or overt concern with social or political issues of the day (in the monastic world that the novel circumscribes, the wider world’s great problems – war, famine, poverty, oppression – exist beyond the frame). Yet, there is something quite remarkable here in this quiet, luminous novel; the text exudes an inner glow, a radiance verging on beatitude (not a word one often associates with contemporary fiction) that works on the reader at considerable depth.

The linear narrative unfolds with unusual gentleness and measured pace, and with an attention to the quotidian that in less capable hands could have bogged down into a banal account of Lobbi’s every waking moment. But Ólafsdóttir’s touch is so light and so invested in the moment that one reads about Lobbi’s preparations, his journey by plane and car, his meals, his life at the monastery, his visits to the market, all the minor ceremonies of a day without finding them in the least bit tiresome (including what is certainly the first engaging description of the changing of a diaper I’ve encountered either inside or, for that matter, outside of a book). There’s a great deal going on in the margins and growing beneath the surface of this narrative. The deceptive simplicity of the story is ringed by death, accident, and coincidence, and more subtly by notions of foreignness and estrangement and the vagaries and difficulties of relation - and of translation - in their broadest sense. In the novel’s acute self-consciousness as regards departure from Iceland (I might add that all of the Icelandic literature I’ve read expresses an almost deliriously fervent and ruminative fascination with the natural landscape of the place that calls to mind that notion of a “nostalgia of the present”), it’s likely that the novel has a resonance among Icelandic readers that goes well beyond the usual elements lost in translation (I was particularly taken by Ólafsdóttir’s intriguing comment in an interview that “writers are foreigners to their mother tongue. Their job is to misunderstand language”[1]). Even more pronounced is the welcome and subtle sort of velvet revolution Ólafsdóttir performs with regard to gender and family roles, gently turning them about with the naturalness and matter-of-factness of a gardener tilling the soil, and presenting, in her image of a contemporary holy family, a remarkably appealing model for paternity (anyone so myopic and reductionist as to think of Rosa Candida as primarily a “feminist” novel, however, may leave the room right now). One of Ólafsdóttir’s great strengths is an ability to handle large questions and what could easily be ponderous religious and natural symbolism with great dexterity and etherealness; this is not a novel of surface effects. The novel exerts the organic irrepressibility and assertiveness of life and of growth, as though a kind of inner gravity drew all things towards unity, as towards the candida rosa of Dante’s “Paradiso,” the multi-foliate rose of divine love and redemption that marks the fulfillment of the poet’s journey. And while this may be an odd thing to say about a novel - even to say to myself - I had the sense of being “cleansed” by Rosa Candida. Stepping out of the house into the late afternoon light just after closing the book, I found the world noticeably altered, more sentient and vital, more astonishing.

Ólafsdóttir’s novel has been popular in Europe; it was awarded last year’s prestigious Prix de Page in France for best European novel of the year, and has received several other Icelandic, European and Canadian awards. An English translation of the book struck me as inevitable long before I’d finished reading the French one, as this seems one of the rare contemporary novels capable of standing up to literary critics and popular audiences alike. But, by a Rosa Candida-type of unlikely coincidence, I was amazed to discover that an English translation has in fact appeared today from Amazon Crossing (under the title The Greenhouse, and not The Offspring, the more literal title used in on-line English commentary about the book). The novel’s thematic elements of soul-searching, reconnection and the search for meaning will have wide appeal, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a film version of the book follow. But the delicateness of Ólafsdóttir’s accomplishment is evident in imagining just how easily a film version could transform the gossamer fragility of the work into sentimental pulp. One might also initially mistake Rosa Candida as yet another of those proliferating contemporary literary vehicles for tidy adult resolution of childhood conflicts that more often than not adopt the language of therapy (a friend has exasperatingly warned her book group that she’s had it with novels containing the words “Club,” “Memory,” or “Daughter” in the title). But sentimental pulp is one thing Rosa Candida is not. This is a highly accomplished, subtly vitalizing and ultimately ambiguous work written with confidence and depth. Among the three impressive contemporary Icelandic novels I’ve read this year, Rosa Candida takes the prize.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Life and Times of J.

Caroline Blackwood, photograph by Walker Evans

In the annals of sins of omission and unintended psychological cruelties, Caroline Blackwood’s early novel, The Stepdaughter, is one nasty little book. This epistolary novella takes place entirely within the correspondence of “J.”, a well-off New York divorcee (well, soon-to-be-divorcee) who, rather than communicate meaningfully with any real person, writes letters into the void (it’s a one-way correspondence in all but a metaphorical sense). This echo chamber finds its physical analogue in the luxurious high-rise apartment which serves as a cell from which J. spends her time peering out listlessly onto its breathtaking view of Manhattan and trying her best to ignore the impingements of the apartment’s other inhabitants: her four-year old daughter Sally Ann; Monique, the homesick French au pair sent over by J.’s former lawyer husband Arnold; and one very big, living, breathing problem, J.’s lumpish adolescent stepdaughter, Renata. These increasingly strident and desperate letters - which J. closes “Yours hopefully,” “Yours in a state of restless anxiety,” “Yours miserably,” and so on, in a disorder that mirrors her emotional condition - piece together for the reader how this menagerie of miserable females came to be, and read like searing, furious eruptions from J.’s incredulity at having arrived at such a state.

The unfortunate Renata, object of the novel’s title and undeserving target of all of J.’s unhappiness, is herself abandoned, with Arnold having decamped to France to pursue a nubile Parisienne and dumped on the unwitting J. this daughter from an earlier marriage (Renata’s mother, yet another unfortunate, is apparently confined to a mental institution in California). Shunned by the adults she’s known in her short life, and now sentenced to live with the latest one into whose neglect she’s been committed, the pudgy Renata spends her days padding back and forth between her room, where she does nothing but watch TV, and the kitchen, where she endlessly bakes and devours cakes from instant mixes “as if,” writes J., “she is hoping that in some camel-like way her body will be able to store them up and enable her to survive the desert future she fears must lie ahead.” J.’s obsessive letters reveal an unbearable, almost obscene tension between the sense of obligation she feels for Renata, whom she cannot see as anything but pitiable – an “ugly, untalented adolescent, whom no one wants” - and her own repulsion at this child who isn’t even hers and who seems to sum up, in her slovenly clothing and increasing girth, J.’s failed marriage and dimming prospects: “something even worse than my past: she is not only my present, she is also my future. That is why I find her presence in my apartment so intolerable.” Any care of J.’s own daughter, Sally Ann, has been relegated to the miserable Monique, who spends her spare time writing her own desperate letters of woe to friends and family in France, complaining of her awful employer and pining for the day her contract will at last come to an end.

The confined world that Blackwood depicts is nearly hermetically sealed off from the outside. J.’s letters to no one underscore the life that primarily unfolds within her own head. When at last she dares a moment of actual communication with Renata in an effort to rid herself of this unwanted burden, the result is nothing at all like the one that J.’s comfortable assurance has predicted, revealing Renata’s unhappiness as largely a projection of J.’s own and Renata as a perceptive child well aware of where she stands in J.'s world. J.’s solipsism takes a blow; the world delivers, in a single moment, a glaring, unexpected dose of reality out of sync with the ruminative narrative of J.’s own bitter thoughts, though in her quietly manic effort to tamp the world back down into something controllable and confined, she nonetheless wages a recovery.

The Stepdaughter might be an incredibly bleak depiction of psychological isolation, recrimination, and the banality of emotional neglect and cruelty were this wretchedness of female entrapment, rage and abandonment not leavened by the devastatingly dark humor of Blackwood herself. She’s such a razor sharp writer that one can’t help but laugh while simultaneously cringing at her perfectly-tuned formulations. As in the other Blackwood novel I read this year, Great Granny Webster, Blackwood proves a master of characterization (that she was once married to the late Lucien Freud, perhaps the world’s finest contemporary portrait painter, is an irrelevant bit of biographical trivia that’s nonetheless titillating to contemplate; in any case, Blackwood is at least every bit Freud's equal in the portrayal of human frailties, and certainly deserves as much renown as he). In both of these novels, Blackwood creates exquisitely drawn, almost archetypal characters one is unlikely ever to forget. Even minor characters are depicted beautifully with a few careful brushstrokes, as in the description of a cop summoned to J.’s apartment:

The police officer was one of those big, clumsy, bull-like men who move around very slowly and have tired little I-have-seen-it-all eyes. He had a scarlet neck which looked as if it had absorbed more experience than his face, and it came bulging over the collar of his uniform with every inch of its weatherbeaten surface decorated by the most unpleasantly elaborate lithography of deep cracks and creases, which were all overlaid by a feathery tissue of spider-web lines.

This talent for description and scathing, ironic humor makes The Stepdaughter’s nastiness almost bearable. To make the novel more palatable, I was tempted to imagine it as one of those histrionic Charles Busch plays, one of which I’d fortuitously read just prior to picking up The Stepdaughter. But for all the strident anxieties on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Blackwood's novel, The Stepdaughter is resistant to camp; her acute understanding of the moral psychology of her characters would make such a reading fall flat. One can’t help but feel for J., both victim and victimizer. Nothing in her emotional life is simplified or prettified. It’s as though Blackwood has stripped her down to bare her most hidden feelings in all their awful complexity, and what’s there is as honest as it is ugly. There’s an odd sort of bravery in that. But that those feelings remain, for most of the novel, transmitted only via these letters to no one, never to be sent, emphasizes in a piercing manner the complex tragedies born by a failure to communicate. This is a novel in which the characters have tenuous relations to begin with, but in the absence of communication they revolve awkwardly around one another like planets in a nebulous solar system without a sun, drawn and repelled only by their own gravitational forces. J.'s drawn out decision to speak to Renata, after so much time spent living among her own thoughts, leads to a conclusion not unlike a more high-pitched, post-Kafka version of the revelation of wasted life that occurs in Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “The Necklace.” There’s not a whole lot of consolation in learning the truth, but getting to watch it delivered with such psychologically incisive insight, crystalline clarity and caustic wit makes The Stepdaughter a deliciously horrible and haunting book.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Impecunious Expat

It’s easy to see why New Directions made such a tangible physical object out of Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp by showcasing it in a starkly bound hardcover edition, textured and black like iron; the texts it contains are like sand pouring through one’s hands, and leave the reader grasping desperately for something solid to hold. And as though to taunt the reader’s floundering, the back of the book carries a disproportionately large embossed quotation from Bolaño himself: “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” Even taking into account that an artist’s assessment of his or her own work should usually be taken with a grain of morphine, when it came to Antwerp, the embarrassment – at least in terms of the book’s challenges to a reader - was all mine.

One knows quickly that Antwerp isn’t going to follow narrative conventions. This short work of “just loose pages,” compiled - “written” just doesn’t seem the right word - in 1980, when Bolaño still thought of himself primarily as a poet, but not published until 2002, comprises 56 linked vignettes offering up repeated signifiers that accrue into a kind of “novel” (his word, not mine). Did I write “vignettes”? That’s not quite the right word either, as its root implies a view onto something, whereas Bolaño’s texts are about as opaque as the dirty windows that recur throughout the book. Antwerp reads like a writer’s notebook: notes, fragments that might one day find their way into a novel (and indeed have, since certain elements will be recognizable to anyone who’s read Bolaño’s later works, thus Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarria’s frequently quoted observation that Antwerp represents “the Big Bang” in Bolaño’s literary universe). Even this is a somewhat optimistic assessment. While many episodes feature straightforward, coherent passages, these are interrupted by phrases and sentences that crowd upon one another without linearity or clear connectivity, at times as though William Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique had been scored for jagged glass and razor wire (indeed there’s reference to Burroughs on the first page of Antwerp). These ostensibly unrelated snippets of text clump together in inchoate clusters. Pronouns appear without identifiable referent. Certain phrases arise inexplicably within quotation marks as though snatched from overheard conversations or lifted from a screenplay. Nearly every attempt to logically bridge one free-floating element to another results in a plunge into an abyss. We’re adrift on a sea of disconnected texts – or rather, texts that imply connection due to the recurrence of certain ingredients, but, for all that, don’t point us towards a clear resolution of their relation. In this Rorschach test of a book, attempts at interpretation become nearly as atomized as the texts that beg them. A few phrases seem to play deliberately with the reader’s efforts to penetrate the opacity of the whole: “The hunchback is your guiding light.” Is he really? Are we supposed to be attuned to some significance outside the book? Should we think of Quasimodo? Is it Roberto Bolaño hunched over his desk in his cheap room at night? Might it be Lichtenberg? Regardless, should we really follow him, and if we do, where might he lead us - into or out of the forest of signs?

And what should we make of the David O. Selznick epigraph that graces the first text in Bolaño’s game of 56-card pick-up? “Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a façade.”  Is Bolaño warning us that the ensuing texts will be simply a façade too, that behind them (as I once heard someone charmingly misquote Gertrude Stein’s quip about Oakland), “there is nothing there, there”? Nearly all of these texts feature a cinematic attribute – a reference to a shot, a perspective, a screen or projection. But what to do with this flickering zoetrope of spliced images, this jump-cut fragmentation? Even after blinkering through these disparate, suggestive pieces and bringing to bear our own empirical and imaginative responsibilities as readers (one of Bolaño’s favorite Lichtenberg aphorisms seemed humiliatingly apt to me in my own reading: "A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, don't expect an apostle to peer out"), how are we to put them together and give them a comprehensible form in a work that seems to be about form itself, the usual rules abandoned in an experiment in what can be done beyond or without them?

One tenuous foothold is provided by Bolaño’s 2002 preface, “Total Anarchy” (a title so hyperbolic that I felt inclined to treat it the way an Amy Hempel character treated her moving van being swallowed by a landslide upon her arrival in California by noting, “an omen that big can just be ignored”). Here Bolaño characterizes Antwerp as a book written “for myself…and of that I’m not even sure” and later as written “for the ghosts,” lines dashed off nightly in a sort of fever (Jack Kerouac writing The Subterraneans over three days without sleep came to mind). The epigraph from Blaise Pascal at the beginning of the book offers another meager purchase, with its astonishment at the fact of being alive at a particular moment and place in the eternity of time, “to see myself here rather than there; there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then.” And indeed Antwerp reads as though the boundaries between one moment and another, one space and another, have vanished, leaving a “total anarchy” of place and time.

Except that it’s not exactly total anarchy. There are no grammatically nonsensical phrases, no patches of moss or pieces of garbage or cauliflowers, no sudden eruptions of Chinese calligraphy or mathematical equations or doodles in the middle of a page (well okay, so there is actually a doodle). There’s a logic to Bolaño’s network of signs and a perceptible integrity to the episodes and to the work as a whole. While these texts at first seem haphazardly tossed together in a frenzy of creation, an accretion begins to form from the repetition of certain conceits, images, phrases, personages. Waiters walking along a beach. A forest by a highway. Violence. A nameless red-haired girl. Cops. Colors. Faces without mouths and mouths unable to speak. The hunchback. Dirty windows. Sand.

Phrases referencing the futility of words and language also proliferate, and the various origins of this fragmentation of language in Antwerp are suggested by consistencies within overlapping spatial and temporal planes: dreams, films, observations in streets and parks and campgrounds and stations, reflections regarding the process of writing itself: “Phrases appeared, I mean, I never closed my eyes or made an effort to think, the phrases just appeared, literally, like glowing ads in the middle of the empty waiting room…like news on an electronic ticker”… “Hands in the process of geometric fragmentation: writing that’s stolen away just as love, friendship, and the recurring backyards of nightmares are stolen away”… “All I can come up with are stray sentences, he said, maybe because reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences”…”There are no rules.”

For all its splintered jaggedness, what holds Antwerp together (loosely) is this tension between “total anarchy” and what we can see is surely not “total anarchy.” Bolaño feeds us just enough to keep us in a maddening state of doubt about the text. Is there an actual story among these shreds and scraps? Poring through them one gets glimpses of a story or stories amid the book’s several murders, malevolent cops, films being made and watched (many of these elements, particularly the suggestion of literature involving a kind of detective work, will of course reappear in Bolaño’s later novels).  

Why “Antwerp”? One of the 56 episodes bears that title and recounts a horrific accident outside that city in which a truck carrying pigs crushes a car and leaves the pigs dead, injured, or running off down the highway like Bolaño’s own piggly little insubordinate sentences.  Bolaño might have used any of the other 55 titles for the ensemble. But in picking this one, #49, distinguished by virtue of its geographical particularity and imagery, Bolaño succeeds in having the reader’s attention coalesce around it. Something is buoyed above the sea of other signifiers. But what, exactly, and why? The only other time the city’s name appears is in the penultimate text, which recounts the disappearance of an expat girl from the campground and implies her murder, foreshadowed – if that’s the right word – by earlier texts, including one that features an account of six young campers shot to death, perhaps by paramilitaries or police (one recognizes these young people right away – they group together across the globe as they have for years in parks and on beaches and in foreign places seeking meaning and solidarity and connection). In this  text, we also see the parents of the disappeared girl driving towards some European city - “On the way to Lyon, Geneva, Bruges? On the way to Antwerp?” – perhaps on the way to the girl’s funeral, perhaps oblivious to her death in a foreign land, with their trajectory loaned an ominous foreboding by the aforementioned absurd accident “on the death-doomed European highways” – another of the “sad stories” to which Bolaño refers repeatedly throughout the book.

But in the interstices of these linked signifiers and sad stories amid swarming stray sentences and disrupted spatio-temporality, one can see another glue holding Antwerp together: the motifs that suggest (as helpfully contextualized in Bolaño’s preface) something of the writer’s own predicament at the time of his writing the book. A montage, an abstract but discernible portrait of that life emerges – or at least of a life one can imagine Bolaño having led (there are never equivalences in this book, only intimations) - a life marked by youth, fear, loneliness, sadness, poverty, immaturity, vulnerability, loss, working odd jobs to survive, smoking and writing in cheap rooms, being a stranger in a strange land, glimpses of and proximity to violence, huddling with other young adrift expats, watching pornographic movies in theaters and b-films on a sheet strung between trees in a communal campground, having little but writing and the aspiration to be a writer to give one the courage to carry on. Some of these elements in the preface and the texts communicate a youthful sentimentality, pathos and even mild self-romanticization, particularly the last page, where Bolaño breaks through his fourth wall and tells us of the life-line of certain phrases and sentences capable of “grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength.” Perhaps Antwerp was the one novel that didn’t embarrass Bolaño because it so honestly represented this time of youthful vulnerability and aspiration, its unmediated texts given permission to drift upward or downward at their wont and marking for him the fearful courage - to which he alludes in his preface with a forgiving kindness towards this early, obliquely autobiographical effort – of daring his transformation into an artist.

For this reason, Antwerp may primarily be of interest from the standpoint of Bolaño’s literary origins (Echevvaria’s “Big Bang” comment may represent the most compelling reason for reading the book). The curious last line of Bolaño’s preface - “Then came 1981, and before I knew it, everything had changed” - may denote some event to which we are not privy, or, more unlikely, may allude to a year of significant change in post-Franco Spain (where Bolaño lived at the time), or, more likely, may reference Bolaño’s recognition of his emergence as a fully committed writer. Or, it might simply mark the arrival of another year, another incremental step away from youth. Regardless, it asserts a conscious delineation, a line drawn in the sand from across which Bolaño could move on to grander things, with fragments of these loose pages trailing behind him.

This post was written as part of the 2011 Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge hosted by Rise at In Lieu of a Field Guide.