Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pourquoi Lire?

First of all, I just have to mention to whom it may concern that the French literature section of the library needs some attention – eventually. But there’s no hurry; absent its current state of breathtaking disarray I’d have missed the happy hazard of picking up Charles Dantzig’s 2010 book Pourquoi Lire?. There I found it, carelessly crammed in face down on top of other books, not far from the gap once ostensibly occupied by the book I’d gone there to find, Dantzig’s Encyclopédie Capricieuse du Tout et du Rien (Capricious Encyclopedia of Everything and Nothing). And while clearly something should be done, I’m not altogether ungrateful for the mess. Pourquoi Lire? answers its own question by ranking among the most purely enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

A book with this subject almost inevitably invites a kind of one-off approach, as the author’s task here is fairly straightforward: muse about the many aspects of books and reading; season generously with personal likes, dislikes and displays of erudition; and serve warm. Conceived by a less adept and versatile mind (and there are more than a few lesser books on the subject floating around out there), Pourquoi Lire? could have become a negligible bagatelle. But Dantzig belongs undeniably to that international union of “grands lecteurs” for whom his book will echo down the long, disarrayed stacks of their own reading, someone who reads widely and deeply, has strong opinions, and presents them with exceptional charm, insight, humor, and even, on occasion, a sober and moving depth. 

I had a passing familiarity with Dantzig as a result of another chance encounter, having been given, a few years ago, his enormously ambitious and physically enormous (nearly 1,000 pages) Dictionnaire Egoïste de la Littérature Française. An American friend, knowing my interest in French literature, picked it up on impulse while in Paris. I’ve read it piecemeal, dipping into it at random; it’s one of those books that lends itself to such haphazard reading (and thus has found a more or less permanent place on the insomniac’s bookshelf next to my bed, along with assorted poetry collections, The Thurber Carnival, Vincent and Mary Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes, and naturalist Donald Peattie’s lenitive, gently soporific A Natural History of Western Trees, with its sylvan, ensorcelling Paul Landacre woodcuts).  

Dantzig’s response to his ostensibly simple question – through 75 plus brief essays, many of which come off as new elaborations on similar entries in his idiosyncratically entertaining Dictionnaire - begins by noting his own accidents, those he causes by literally (literarily?) bumping into people while reading as he walks. While not all of us read quite this dangerously, a great deal of what Dantzig writes about will resonate with anyone who appreciates literature. While a few of his observations seem altogether obvious to any bibliophile, others appear familiar only in the sense in which surprising discoveries are sometimes those lying about in plain sight.

Dantzig’s dissections of various aspects of reading range from the almost predictable (Reading the Classics, Reading to Learn, Reading for Consolation, Reading to be Articulate), to others a bit more unanticipated (Reading to Make Friends, Reading Bad Books, Reading for the Titles, Why Not to Read), to quite a few – wading deeply into Dantzig territory here – far more decalé (Reading to Get Past the Half-Way Point of the Book, Reading for Discovering What the Writer Didn’t Say, Reading for Masturbation, Reading Like a Flower, Reading So As to No Longer Be the Queen of England). 

A genial, palpable passion for literature in its many manifestations infuses these essays, which address not only the reading of novels, but also such topics as reading aloud, reading interviews and dramatic works, and literature’s survival in the age of the electronic text. Through the lens of reading, Dantzig offers up opinions on contemporary culture both high and low, from the facile vacancy of much contemporary text/image art to “neither good nor bad, just blah” consumerist literary products like the Twilight vampire books of Stephanie Meyer, to the threats to literature posed by the ascendency of anti-intellectual, semi-literate political reactionism fronted by figures such as “clownesse” Sarah Palin.  Dantzig also playfully incorporates a number of images into Pourquoi Lire? – photos, cartoons, paintings – including a moving chapter on various artistic and photographic depictions of persons reading (and not reading), and another, with less charitable before-and-after photos, on reading facial wrinkles.

One of Dantzig’s more pointed mélanges of the familiar and the unexpected is the chapter Reading on Airplanes, which presents a by now completely standard and tiresome catalogue of complaints about the malaise of air travel – the indignities of security queues, the absurdity of spending almost as much time at the airport as in the air, the banality of airplane interiors, the obsequious adult infantilism of in-flight service – followed by a strikingly resonant symbol for the devolution of the glamour of air travel (at least for those of us of a certain age who first visited New York during a certain epoch). After discussing several literary works that concern the romance of flight, Dantzig continues:

There wasn’t even a need for books. The names of the airlines themselves were poetic enough: UTA, BOAC, TWA, Pan Am. Pan Am! In New York there was the Pan Am Building, planted behind Grand Central Station, its famous logo way at the top symbolizing the glory of commercial air travel. Since it’s became the property of as joyless an entity as an insurance company, no one obtains any pleasure by raising his or her eyes towards The MetLife Tower; in fact, one experiences a kind of shame in reading those words, as though, I imagine, one felt shame at reading German words on the signs of occupied Paris during the Second World War.

It almost goes without saying that there’s a particularly French angle to Dantzig’s book, perhaps one reason he has remained - unjustly - untranslated. Some of the writers he discusses and quotes, such as Paul Léautaud and Jules Barbey d’Aubervilly, may be familiar chiefly to those with a background in French literature. However, most are household, international literary names, and Dantzig’s observations tend towards the universal, making Pourquoi Lire? appealing beyond its slight franco-centrism (though it’s also clear that Dantzig’s literary tastes tend to the fairly traditional and canonical; while the book makes no pretensions to thoroughness, there’s an almost shocking absence of attention paid to emerging writers or writers from outside of Europe or North America).

One element that enhances Pourquoi Lire?’s charm and appeal is Dantzig’s engaging and conversational narrative voice, at once an invitation into a commonality of readers and an acknowledgement of an almost ready-made conspiratorial intimacy among bibliophiles and lovers of literature. Additionally, piquantly noting that “the reader goes to bed with her reading,” Dantzig maintains, throughout Pourquoi Lire?, an acute focus on that creature with two backs represented by the integral interaction of reader and book:

We read selfishly, but we arrive, involuntarily, at an altruistic result. In reading, we’ve brought back to life a thought in deep sleep. What is a book, if not a Sleeping Beauty? What is a reader, if not her Prince Charming, even though he wears glasses, has a bald spot, and is 98 years old? A closed book exists, but it’s not alive. It’s a rectangular parallelepiped, probably covered with a fine coat of dust, empty like a box can be empty. Each act of reading, one might say, is a re-creation. Mallarmé exaggerated when he maintained that each reader was the creator of the poem. “Re-animator” would have sufficed. We’re big enough people to admit that, as important as the role of the reader is, he isn’t the one who created the work.

In the end, through this focus on reading as an act of love and reanimation, Dantzig succeeds in distilling the essence of the importance of reading to its near total impracticality, that its value lies exactly in its serving for nothing. Or rather, the reading of literature serves for nothing other than as a bulwark and act of resistance against the forces of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, anti-relativism, incuriosity and vacuity, and, ultimately, as a check on our final simplification, through its capacity for restoring life’s “adorable complexities against the marionettes of death.”

At one point in Pourquoi Lire?, Dantzig notes (while discussing Stendhal, clearly a favorite writer, as he is in the Dictionnaire, and reason enough for my finding Dantzig such a sympathetic guide) that gaiety – particularly when it comes with an acid point - is a rare commodity in literature, that for this reason such books should be venerated like treasures. Veneration might be a bit too strong a word in this case, but Pourquoi Lire? - gay, engaging and delightfully pointed - should have little trouble cozying in on the shelf among the literary treasures that helped inspire it.

(Pourquoi Lire?, by Charles Dantzig, Editions Grasset, Paris, 2010, unfortunately not yet translated into English; translations above are my own).

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jan Křesadlo: Gravelarks

Czech émigré writer Jan Křesadlo (Vaclav Pinkava), an unexpected interlude in my reading – and another fascinating example of an Eastern European author emerging to prominence after the fall of the literary Iron Curtain - came to my attention by mention of him on a forum concerning literature that contributors wished to see translated into English. In fact, one of Křesadlo’s novels – Mrchopěvci (English title: Gravelarks) – has been translated, in a bilingual Czech-English edition by Mata Press of Prague with black and white illustrations by Křesadlo’s son, Oscar-winning animator Jan Pinkava (two items in this edition that fit my book publishing wish list: attention to binding, with quality paper and a ribbon bookmark, and the courtesy - understandably extendable only to short works - of including the original language version to accompany the translation). Reproduced in the book is a 1987 letter from Josef Škvorecký heaping praise upon the novel - which Škvorecký’s own publishing-house-in-exile, Sixty-Eight Publishers, issued in Czech in Toronto in 1984 - and soliciting interest for an English translation. Alas, it took another 12 years for one to appear, this 1999 Mata edition, which then apparently vanished like a comet. My search of on-line booksellers turned up zero available copies, not even from Mata in Prague, so I was happy to find it in my local library.

Gravelarks, a wild, blackly funny work of biting protest and deceptively light-hearted sarcasm aimed at communist rule in Czechoslovakia - “after the year 1948, but still long before the period of the ‘thaw,’ as in so many other émigré novels” - takes its title from the occupation of its main character, an ordinary young nobody named Zderad who, having fallen out of favor with the dominant Stalinist political paradigm, must support his wife and infant son by singing dirges at funerals along with other “gravelarks.” It’s a gray existence, unleavened by the coffin-shaped apartment he inhabits with his family in a grimy part of the city and by the ostracism he experiences as an outcast from the state. But, as the narrator repeatedly observes with Candidean optimism, it still isn’t (quite) “the worst of all possible worlds.” One day after singing for a funeral, Zderad finds himself suddenly plunged into a greater, more nightmarish humiliation when confronted by a tall, pale stranger who produces a photocopy of an anti-Stalinist bit of doggeral Zderad wrote - in Greek - while still a grade school student. Under the oppressive paranoia of the time, however, even such an innocuous little poem would signify “practically a death certificate for its creator,” and the stranger is able to coerce Zderad into a crumbling tomb in the cemetery and subject him to sexual blackmail.

As the blackmailer demands new and increasingly florid encounters, Zderad’s situation is further complicated not only by his diverse attempts to uncover his exploiter’s identity but also by his awareness of a psychosexual power dynamic in which he obtains both profit (he’s paid for his “services”) and an embarrassing element of pleasure:

The cruel mental pleasure of unspeakably obscene power over the horrible blackmailer fused with the sepulchral lover’s revolting but effective caresses, spiced with his muffled sobs and grunts. The posterior of the stinking mandrill, which is incredibly obscene, offends the more sensitive visitor to the Zoo, yet it shines with a symphony of delicate and pronounced hues of greens, reds, blues and purples. Metallic shining flies for example of the genus Calliphora which revel in excrement and carrion, are of a similarly glorious coloration, as are many species of dung beetle. Thus the radiance and glory of Being permeate all its levels. Uninfluenced by the spectacle it was illuminating, the flame of the candle burned with a beautiful and glorious brightness, and, at the same time, Zderad’s lust also flared up in spite of himself. Pulsating, it glowed colourfully with ever greater strength until it finally exploded into a cosmic firework.

The novel follows Zderad’s various attempts to unyoke himself from this sordid exploitation, find inner courage and identity, and rediscover the moment of romantic tranquility and happiness he’d experienced years before when he first met his wife while swimming at a lake in the countryside. Křesadlo’s narrative takes the reader on a picaresque journey through the vicissitudes of Stalinist rule, recounted by a charming, lively, self-interrogating émigré narrator, acutely conscious of his role as storyteller and of his obligation to avoid falling into typical literary pitfalls such as those of the emerging genre of “Easterns,” which of necessity contain “secret policemen, blackmailers, whores and other typical characters” just as “Westerns” contain common elements of “guns, horseriding and the odd bit of cattle ranching.” What results is a freewheeling, anything goes narrative punctuated by bits of musical score and phrases in Greek, propelled with a rocketing narrative velocity that can nonetheless stop on a dime for the narrator to interject his own views or question his own narrative style, even shift gears entirely by suddenly inserting, as an “Intermezzo,” a brief parable in order to more thoroughly (and grotesquely) get across a point.

Křesadlo’s contempt for the communist regime infects the novel at every turn; it’s spiked with scathing references to dogma and institutionalized politics; to the “Youth Unions,” “Joyful Corrective Centers” and other statist institutions with Orwellian names; to the “consumers” who “got out” and turned their backs on those left behind; to acquiescent intellectuals in the West; and in general to the “radishes” (red on the outside, white on the inside) who constituted “most of the contemporary population of Czechoslovakia.” The narrator reserves special scorn for state-supporting intellectuals and for the dreadful state of Czech literature of the time (in a somewhat performative self-interview Křesadlo wrote in the 1990's, his distaste for Milan Kundera was apparent):

…a desert…almost total…the better writers of the future were at that time still in a state of embryonic latency. Some, but not all of them, were writing and publishing true and honest byzantine odes to Stalin, only in the Czech and Slovak languages, of course…

Commenting further on the severity of the literary drought, the narrator notes that the only other books still to be found were those in antiquarian bookshops, “remnants of eliminated ethnic groups” to “be had for next to nothing, because, comrades, who’d want to read them?”

If there’s one element I found slightly bothersome in Gravelarks, it’s Křesadlo’s use of “sexual deviance” as a metaphor for communist corruption (Křesadlo held a degree in psychology and worked for years as a clinical psychologist at the mental hospital affiliated with Charles University, specializing in sexual aberrations). As though there are not already in literature enough homosexual characters portrayed as monsters, Křesadlo appears to go even one better by referring quite simply to Zderad’s exploiter as “the Monster.” But at the same time, the character is so utterly over the top – what starts as a altogether ordinary sexual act blossoms into an astoundingly baroque variety of sexual obsessions and pathologies, both homo-and hetero-sexual, and increasingly monstrous, incorporating even kidnapping and murder – that it’s next to impossible to take him seriously as anything other than metaphor.  It’s abundantly clear that by rendering Stalinist communism as a grotesquerie of sordid sexual depravity, Křesadlo mocks the brightly polished, seamless moral certitude of the state’s self-congratulatory self-image. And to be fair, Křesadlo - who, during his lifetime, was instrumental in efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Czechoslovakia - provides another, far more sympathetic homosexual character as a foil. Still, while this may simply reflect a weariness of such depictions on my part, not to mention the American cultural lens through which I couldn't help but view the book, the device struck me as uncomfortably close to the manner in which, for example, religious fanatics expediently and routinely assign blame for all of a country’s woes to “sexual deviance " (of course, we've all seen what lies beneath that particular brand of polished, seamless moral certitude...). 
In the end, though, Křesadlo’s evident talents trumped whatever slight misgivings I had regarding his choice of metaphors. I found myself frequently laughing out loud while swept along by his glittering, barbed, ebullient, acrobatic prose and delighted by the sheer dexterity and breadth of his language, his frequent use of outlandish, comical imagery, and the occasional descriptive gem (i.e. “The sky was as mild as a cow’s eye”). One can only hope that Gravelarks will return to print in English, and that more of Křesadlo’s works will be made available to allow English readers to explore further this remarkable novelist / poet / scholar / composer / linguist / activist. I would be especially interested to see a translation of what is purported to be his magnum opus:  “Astronautilia,” an epic science fiction poem modeled after Homer’s “Odyssey,” running to more than 6,500 lines, and written entirely in classical Greek, with Czech translation on facing pages.

This revised review (July 12, 2011) corrects some errors and misperceptions that appeared in the original posting.