Friday, October 19, 2012

The End of All Men

Photo: NASA

In continuing to explore C.-F. Ramuz, I turned to an earlier novel with a later, greater theme, again succinctly contained in its title: The End of All Men. If When the Mountain Fell had, in its treatment of a particular calamity, provided an oblique but chillingly portentous and powerful suggestion of the cataclysm of Nazism and war about to engulf Europe, then The End of All Men should frighten the hell out of contemporary readers: its subject is the unstoppable warming of the world. Though the novel was written in 1927, there has probably been no other work since that has so effectively and devastatingly painted a picture of the catastrophe of climate change.

Of course, Ramuz in 1927 was hardly addressing human-made warming of the planet. As in When the Mountain Fell, Ramuz melds Christian allegory and natural forces, here the prediction in Revelations of the destruction of the world by fire, and inspired, as we infer from the dedication, by a torrid summer in which it seemed the world would never stop getting hotter. His plainspoken vision of such an end to the earth has little to do with today’s complex scientific projections of the interacting mechanisms of warming with which we’re now familiar: the terrifying myriad of potential attendant consequences ranging from rising sea levels to disastrous weather, from disruptions in food supply to release of gases trapped in frozen tundra, from eruptions of disease to cascading ecological effects stemming from alterations in species vitality and survival. Scientists intent on communicating their alarm might learn from Ramuz, as what appears to be a trademark Ramuz ability to convey ideas grandly but in simply understandable terms makes The End of All Men as straightforward and easy to grasp as a Biblical parable.

Simply put, something has occurred, some perturbation of the earth that sends it slowly spiraling closer to the sun, with the temperature rising gradually each day. The first wave of hot days and the first rumors of something wrong get shrugged off:

There is a slight beginning of nothing here, without any outward sign. In the beginning the inventor of the idea is all alone with his idea. The arriving news gets a reception only of inattention and smiles.

Denial gives way to fear, then to panic, desperation, and violence. The strategies for dealing with the heat grow increasingly frantic. Riots break out. Refugees pile onto ships headed for the poles, only to be repulsed by icebergs splintered from the icecaps. In ever-shrinking lakes, people seek solace in whatever coolness remains in whatever water remains. Finding relief in no cardinal direction, others look vertically and head for the high mountains, for what would a Ramuz novel be without the Swiss Alps?

Like When the Mountain Fell, The End of All Men is set near Lake Geneva in French-speaking Switzerland. Ramuz displays a remarkable ability to be both regional and universal, to move seamlessly from the particular to the general. Large portions of The End of All Men could be lifted out of context and understood in any setting, as though Ramuz has found a way to some “ur” essence of phenomena. Even concrete and precise descriptions appeal to a commonality of experience, as when Ramuz juggles singular and plural in describing the discomfort of attempting to sleep in the heat:

That night the stars were too many and too white. Everybody remains merely questioning; everything is stopped. Everywhere, they lie naked on their beds; they toss from left to right, seeking a place for their head. Naked, having taken off their uncomfortable shirts, but there is that other discomfort which is in the air, and which is the atmosphere. Every man argues for himself – continually repelling something he would like to push aside, and it is himself, his own skin, as he is made, the very threat he is to himself; pushing it with each hand, with the two feet, by slow or abrupt movements.

Stylistically, The End of All Men is more experimental than When the Mountain Fell, more a prose poem than novel, a meditation on death, on human interactions in face of calamity, on moral choices when faced with mortality, on communal choices when faced with doom. Characters have no time to develop – rather, anyone given a name in the novel merely seems to detach from the masses for a brief, distinct moment, a brief act, then disappears, a moth in a flame. And yet the cadence of Ramuz’s language, his moving, gentle and even forgiving portrayal of human beings faced with apocalypse, convey an ultimate faith in human dignity, in effort, in life being worth living. The powerful ending of The End of All Men seems to anticipate as its deceptively reassuring philosophical core those lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” that “the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time” –  rather cold comfort for a world reduced to ashes. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

When The Mountain Fell

"Derborence, by C. F. Ramuz" - photograph by Pierre Sottas, used by permission. 
More of M. Sottas' photos may be viewed here

At a book sale last week I picked up a novel on impulse, having never heard of its author, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and drawn by its curious title, When the Mountain Fell. Given that title, a blurb on the jacket from French dramatist Paul Claudel calling the book “one of the summits of French prose” both piqued my interest and caused one of my irony receptors to flash for an irreverent moment. Having now read When the Mountain Fell, and putting aside its being in translation rather than in its original 1935 French incarnation, Derborence, I’m inclined to trust that Claudel’s statement is no exaggeration. At home late that night, I opened the book expecting to have a quick look; two hours later I emerged from this exquisite novel as though from a trance. Ramuz’s captivating narrative style is completely compelling; his descriptions of the Swiss Alps in which his story unfolds are ravishing; his grasp of the ways people grapple with disaster displays a profound sensitivity and understanding; the ending of the novel still rings in my mind days later with a precise, poignant, crystalline beauty.

As a title, When the Mountain Fell, even if it’s not Ramuz’s own, sums up the novel succinctly. This is a simple story of catastrophe and human response to it, based on an actual event, a colossal landslide in the early 18th century in Derborence, in the French-speaking corner of Switzerland near the source of the Rhône, which brought half of a mountain down onto the scattered seasonal cabins of herders who had taken their livestock up to a mountain meadow to graze. The resulting rock field dammed a stream and created a lake, spread debris for a distance of five and half kilometers, and buried the area in rock to a depth estimated at 100 meters.

Ramuz focuses on the human element of this catastrophe, the actions and reactions of the valley’s citizens across a wide psychological spectrum, from resigned acceptance to abject grief to madness, relating the landslide’s impact on individual lives as well as on the community of the valley and beyond. His characters, simple country people, employ a laconic, pared-down language that captures the essentiality of rural life, as in the relationship between Antoine and Therese, the young newlyweds at the novel’s center:

He said, “hello”; she said, “hello.” He said “Well now…,” she said,” You see, it’s like this.” They had to meet far from the village, because there were always busybodies around.

This economy of language that leaves a world of things unsaid remains unchanged even in the face of disaster, as when men from neighboring villages and even from the German-speaking side of the range converge on the site of the collapsed mountain:

­­They came. They said nothing at first. They came and said nothing. They looked at the people from Zamperon who said nothing either. Then they nodded their heads slowly.
            And they said, “Well?”
The people from Zamperon said, “Yes,” and nodded their heads.

But the ostensible simplicity of When the Mountain Fell masks far more complexity than appears on its surface. Ramuz’s sentences are short. His paragraphs are short. What he does within such constraints can be quietly dazzling. Frequently, perspective shifts subtly between observer and observed, as when Therese, while a storm rages outside, sits dazed within her home, grappling with a ghostly vision she’s had of her husband, a scene we see from her eyes and, a split second later, as though eyes have turned to look at her:

The lightening flashed again. Suddenly there was a window opposite her in the kitchen wall, then it was no longer there.

A blinding white square, it sprang into being, vanished, flashed out again, and with it Therese too was first brilliantly lighted, then swallowed up in darkness , then lighted up again.

Ramuz’s sentences perform similar acrobatics in delicately flipping perspective between interior thought and exterior phenomena, or in juxtaposing elements that suggest, in the wake of the calamity, consciousnesses struggling between extremes of belief and disbelief, between profound anguish and the irreverent indifference of particular material things latched onto in the mind’s desperate grasp for solidity and succor. At times Ramuz replays, “Rashoman” style, an entire scene as viewed first from one character’s perspective then from another’s, even aligning this along a back and forth tension between the buried meadow up the mountain and the women, children and elderly men left in the village below. Perspective looks up the mountain then back down, as though strung along an invisible cord binding the village to the disaster which has taken so many of the town’s most vital men, as though to emphasize the empathic ways in which the living ache for the dead, longing to identify, whether out of grief or hope, or out of both, with those they love, with those they have lost.

The tremendous sense of loss is amplified and thrown into sharp relief through Ramuz’s contrasting, rapturous descriptions of the natural world. Beyond and above the sharp, cruel rocks, everything seems divinely luminous and alive:

It was as if they were standing at the bottom of a well, except that the steep walls were fissured from top to bottom by narrow gorges, each with is tiny waterfall hanging in a wavering white line. Their gaze swept evenly around the rim, then halted where Serpahin’s forefinger still pointed at the sky.

It was up there right on the edge of the parapet at its highest point. Just there the rock jutted out into space, and towering along its whole width was the rim of the glacier. Something up there was shining softly: a luminous fringe, faintly transparent, with gleams of blue and green and a sheen like phosphorescence – it was the broken edge of the ice, and in that enchanted hour of the night it too was filled with infinite silence and infinite peace. Nothing stirred anywhere under the impalpable white down of moonlight which seemed to drift effortlessly on the night air and settle in thin sheets on every smooth surface.

When the Mountain Fell contains a few elements of what in less adept hands I’d be tempted to call “Christian kitsch” – Bible beams breaking through clefts in cliffs and clouds to illuminate polished crosses, symbolic incarnations of good and evil, suggestions of Christian allegory. But what Ramuz accomplishes, almost miraculously, is simply and seamlessly to bring the reader inside the religiosity of the community he describes, conveying how belief - or incredulity - can shape and constitute perception of reality. Rather than imposing a theological vision, Ramuz simultaneously keeps us outside as observers and inside as participants in the community’s small, sincere rituals and gestures of faith, which have a particular poignancy in the world he creates around his good people, a world actually at odds with a reassuring God and where faith is, almost literally, teetering on an abyss. On the surface When the Mountain Fell may appear an anachronism, out of step literarily with a decade that gave birth to works of such striking modernism as Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Yet Ramuz’s story contains, in addition to its subtle, controlled experiments with syntax and perspective, a canny questioning of perception itself – throughout his novel there’s a delicate infusion of dreams, hallucinations, visions, and superstitions capable of altering reality – but above all a deep sense of existential indeterminacy and of the indefinite and indefinable. A simple description of a precipice along a mountain path contains all the power of an existential void:

And suddenly the ground falls away from beneath your feet.

All at once the line of grass against the sky, which dips slightly in the middle, is outlining its hollow curve over nothingness itself. You have arrived. A chasm opens abruptly below you, like an immense oval basket with precipitous sides over which you have to lean, because although you are yourself six thousand feet up, the bottom is seventeen or eighteen hundred feet below you, straight down.

You bend over, you lean your head forward a little. Or else lie down flat, and look over the edge into the depths.           

A breath of cold air blows into your face.

In like manner, even the descriptions of the rock field - “stones, and more stones, and still more stones” - come across as both literal and conceptual, a “waste land” at once geological and as existential as the one that gave a title to T. S. Eliot's poem. Everything in When the Mountain Fell works to suggest a grandeur of existence far beyond the intimacy of the place and time; Ramuz's story could take place as easily in 1935 as in the early 18th century. This lends When the Mountain Fell an eternal, allegorical quality, and, in the context of when it was written, a deeply sensitive prescience. If the minimalist speech of the mountain people carries within it a world of meaning and understanding, then so does Ramuz’s ostensibly simple narrative. For such a small book, it seems vast and echoing, radiating out from that instant of catastrophe as though touching all the world’s catastrophes. And, though the calamitous events in a small, peaceful, Swiss mountain village in the 18th century seem at first far removed from the tumultuous period in which When the Mountain Fell was written, no other novel I’ve read from the time has seemed to communicate so profoundly an anticipation of the imminent catastrophe facing 1930's Europe, of the mountain about to fall on it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi Week: Piazza d'Italia

Antonio Tabucchi’s first novel, Piazza d’Italia (1975), paints a family portrait spanning nearly one hundred years of Italian history, from the country’s unification under Garibaldi through its early birth pangs, expanding colonial empire, passage through World War I, losses to emigration and influenza, Fascism, World War II, and finally its post-war emergence as a democratic republic, a vast historical panorama of a nation and family buffeted by the waves of great historical events, rendered in sumptuous detail with a penetrating, granular examination of every facet of Italian life, a sweeping depiction, extending nearly 200 pages, of-…

Okay, so I made up all that stuff about granular examination and sumptuous detail. This is, after all, Antonio Tabucchi, not some 19th century novelist who wouldn’t have dreamed of compacting so much time into so few pages. But there’s something winsome about Tabucchi’s restrained yet imaginative and engaging attempt to do this, and, as his first novel, Piazza d’Italia also sows some grains for what would emerge in his subsequent works. That Tabucchi choose to divide Piazza d’Italia into three sections – the “restored” subtitle of the 1993 French re-issue I read is “A Popular Tale in Three Times” - may suggest his own sense of the unwieldiness of the narrative’s temporal compression.

Piazza d’Italia’s “Three Times” correspond roughly to three generations of one libertarian, left-leaning family, whose surname is never provided as though to emphasize their representational aspect. The first section tells of a veteran of Garibaldi’s campaigns, the soldier Plinio (the names of many characters in Piazza Italia echo through Italian history, and the tradition of naming children after historical figures gets an amusing treatment when a misprint on a poster results in several children being named “Imberto” instead of “Umberto”). Plinio and his wife Esterina produce two sets of twins, one identical (the brothers Quarto and Volturno) and one fraternal (brother Garibaldo and sister Anita).  Hints of Tabucchi’s later manifestations of interest in the vagaries of identity are evident here, since not only do the twins allude to Italy’s origins in the Romulus and Remus myth and suggest continuity through time, but they also serve as a concatenation of identities within the family. Adding to this concentrate are multiple iterations of the name Garibaldo, including when the town hall denies Plinio his initial wish to name each of the identical twins Garibaldo, or a generation later when their brother Garibaldo’s son, yet another Volturno, discards his own name and adopts that of his father (there’s an indispensible family tree provided in an appendix). Moving gingerly from one generation to the next, Piazza d’Italia traverses Italian history, its events filtered through the Tuscan village of Borgo and marked in the town piazza by the serial replacement of the statue at its center to reflect whichever political figure is most popular at the time. The town’s first cinema also comes to play a starring role in marking later historical events, its ostensible function loaned out for speeches, rallies, and other gatherings having nothing to do with cinema, causing the poor population to wait repeatedly in vain for Giovanni Pastrone’s epic nationalist film Cabiria to finally reach the town. While the family’s men go off to fight or emigrate to the Americas or stay to combat fascism or drift into the deserts of Africa, its fierce and smart women form the moral center of Piazza d’Italia and play as active a political role, albeit often behind the scenes, as their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Some of the references to Italian particulars may be lost on non-Italian readers (just as Pereira Maintains, despite its setting in Salazar’s Portugal, was read by many in Italy as a warning of resurgent fascism under Berlusconi), but at least for historical background, endnotes help fill gaps in the reader’s knowledge.

Tabucchi’s preface to the reissue of Piazza d’Italia contains an admission that it’s the novel with which he realized he wanted to be a writer, as well as a melancholic, Tabucchi-esque musing on the identify of that other, younger Tabucchi who wrote it. For those familiar with Tabucchi’s work, Piazza d’Italia may seem almost quaint, and only hints at what makes his later works so notable, with their dreams and hallucinations, rich literary and cultural references, surprising shifts of identity and clever, meta-fictional conceits that display Tabucchi’s well-known obsession with Fernando Pessoa (those later works also demonstrate significantly pared-down historical scope, as though Tabucchi realized that beyond mere historical measure, an even greater expansiveness might be attained by exploring the multiplicities within an individual’s identity). Tabucchi gives us, in Piazza d’Italia, something more akin to Gabriel Garcia Marquez than to Pessoa, a linear history of three generations of a family set in a small town not unlike Macondo and told through anecdote and vignette, with a few lexical games, such as when the second generation children all refer to one another by their names spelled backwards, and sprinklings of magical and surreal elements, as when the town’s windows all loose themselves from their casements and, flapping their shutters, take to the sky. For me, the setting and period also call to mind Federico Fellini’s film “Amarcord,” with its similar intimacy, gentle humor, great humanism, and sense of distant events sending ripples through a small town, altering it temporarily yet lending it the aspect of some eternal witness. But the beginnings of Tabucchi’s later directions are evident in the confusion of identities, the historical repetitions and caprices of time, the determined, explicit political stance (perhaps because of Tabucchi’s strong opposition to fascism even in his own time, the novel’s scenes during Mussolini’s rule possess a particularly acute power), and above all, Tabucchi’s humor and playfulness, delight with language, confidence and clarity, and warmth of spirit. In other words, Piazza d’Italia is not a bad place to start for a great writer, or for those interested in getting to know him.

I read Piazza d’Italia for Antonio Tabucchi Week, graciously hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

¡Hooray for Hollywood!

The Twayne author series volume on Ramón Gómez de la Serna briefly describes his 1923 “Hollywood” novel Cinelandia as a somewhat disjointed effort that attempts to imitate cinematic techniques but “seems merely to play with its subject” and “fails to come off, for Ramón was writing about something he knew nothing about.” Having now read this deliriously delightful novel (in its French translation, Ciné-Ville), I believe this is a bit like faulting Jules Verne for having never visited the moon. Ciné-Ville may be many things, but its accuracy as a portrayal of Hollywood is rather beside the point. Ramón’s invented fantasy metropolis of Ciné-Ville, entirely consecrated to cinema, is about as much a faithful rendering of Hollywood as a typical Hollywood film is a faithful rendering of whatever inspired it.

Yet Ciné-Ville nonetheless manages to offer up a recognizable, indelible, and even - given that it was written before the genre of the “Hollywood novel” even existed – essential portrait of the whole rangelanda[i] of nascent Hollywood: its artifice, luminous leading ladies, suave leading men, grimacing villains (relegated to their own special class in the city of Ciné-Ville), tyrannical directors, droll fat men, fawning fanaticism over every latest ingénue, torrid off-screen dramas, serial marriages and divorces (mandatory in Ciné-Ville the morning following a marriage), wild cocktail parties, producers and stunt men, stardom-seeking pilgrims and the casting couches on which they land, takes and retakes, glycerin tears, cute fox terriers, and bleached-white smiles that reproduce along “kilometers of film.”

That Ciné-Ville is not intended as a literal portrait of Hollywood is evident from the first page, in which the city is described, as in a newsreel, as a special zone of film production with an outer appearance borrowed from all corners of the globe:

Ciné-Ville has the silhouette of Constantinople, all the while calling to mind Florence and New York. It contains within its limits not the vast totality of those cities, but a neighborhood borrowed from each. Ciné-Ville, Noah’s Ark of different architectures. Possessed of such immodesty that an exotic exhibitionism is unleashed even in its constructions, the Florentine Dome facing a Great Pagoda...Strange panorama of an immense Luna-Park…Approaching the city, one finds reproductions of buildings from around the world, a great museum collection…Arab architecture mingles with Scandinavian… All is strange, conveying an impression like those decorative vignettes that used to illustrate the headings in old magazines, cathedrals mixed among mosques among ancient villas...

The most prominent of Ciné-Ville’s outlandish edifices is its immense electrical generating plant, the world’s most powerful. Cleverly disguised as a cathedral, it also conveniently functions as a film backdrop. This factory produces the prodigious, blinding light that powers Ciné-Ville’s “fabulous center of superproduction”:   

From all sides hang great crystal chandeliers, fantasmic spidery arrays, immense batteries, casements of bulbs, whole plateaus of light, electric globes like those illuminating the dressed windows of the great department stores. A whole range of lights, sconces, magnificent new figurations pour blasts of light into the studios, vast luminous platters of cream. Mercury vapor lamps give one intramedullary injections. Any nuance of feeling seeks refuge in darkened screening rooms and somber hearts: the excess of light obliterates emotion. What miserable beings these are who thrive on the cold simulation of life, in full denial!

Though the novel consists primarily of discreet chapters each devoted to a facet of the world of movies but that accumulate to portray the whole, there are scraps of story in Ciné-Ville and a few recurring, albeit hastily-sketched characters who serve as little more than types to populate the landscape. The few threads that create anything resembling a plot first involve a newcomer to Ciné-Ville, Jacques Estruck, and his integration into this blithe city bathed in an “air of a Palm Sunday, even on Monday nights.” He is first tasked, as is everyone in Ciné-Ville, with choosing a screen name to replace his real one (Ramón’s choices for many of these names struck me as pitch-perfect: Venus d’Argent, Max York, Elsa Brothers, Cléo de Mérode, Edma Blake, Mac Porland, Julanne Barry, King Walter, Charles Wilh). Estruck’s story, like the few other mini-plots in Ciné-Ville, is entirely secondary to Ramón’s interest in capturing the whole emerging world of cinema, and Estruck disappears altogether when Ciné-Ville’s inhabitants, accompanied the novel’s omniscient narrator, abruptly swivel their focus in the direction of the cinema’s newest ingénue, Charlotte Bray, who sucks up all the attention in Ciné-Ville like a resplendent black hole. I’m hardly giving anything away by relating that Charlotte’s future in cinema is cut short by an unfortunate encounter obviously modeled on the Fatty Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal that obsessed Hollywood in the early 1920’s.

Ciné-Ville is pure Ramónismo – that term given for Gómez de la Serna’s singularly poetic, bravura style that weaves into the narrative multiple iterations of his famous “greguerías” – those condensed, humorous, impressionistic and metaphorical one-liners that here paint the contours of the city and its inhabitants. While Ciné-Ville possesses some narrative cohesion, Ramónismo is in full flower throughout, occasionally with self-reflexive humor. In a chapter entitled “The Perverse Child,” Ramón describes a spoiled child-actor who issues quotable, pithy pronouncements that seem parodies of Ramón’s own greguerías. Elsewhere in the novel, he appears to construct scenes expressly so he can fit in his greguerían conceits, such as an exchange between two window-shopping actresses, one of whom sees gloves as “an absolution” that allows one to “exchange one’s sins” and feel “like a virgin” each time one puts on a new pair, and her companion who wishes gemstones were soluble, so that she “could chew them, or throw them into champagne to let them melt like ice.”

At times these surrealistic elements blow up into whole, barmy, kooky anecdotes, as when as when a leading lady, in a jealous rage over her husband’s pursuit of a young actress, takes her revenge by starting a popular kissing school (the descriptions of various aspects of kissing and of what constitutes a good kiss are worth publication by themselves) or another sensation which grips the city when an actress' beauty mark is stolen by her brutish husband. On the day of the verdict for this theft, Ciné-Ville’s great fake moon glows above the city and carries, in empathetic approval, its own beauty mark. Many of Ciné-Ville’s pleasures derive from similarly poetic absurdities, yet, as in his stories, Ramón can transform a moment of absurdist levity into something wonderfully poignant or penetrating. Just when one suspects him of a certain facility and triviality, he manages a lyrical and profound moment that reveals an artist looking deeply and appreciatively at the world even as he’s reveling deliriously in it.

Far from “merely playing” with his subject, Ramón seems to be cavorting wildly, turning the full force of his observational powers towards the world of cinema. Ciné-Ville raises probing and prescient questions about film as art form and as popular medium, including its relation to the novel, confounding of illusion and reality, obsession with celebrity and denial of death (one of the more poetic motifs in the novel is its repeated suggestion of illusory intimations of immortality attained by the preservation of faces, gestures, and the presences of actors and actresses on celluloid). These observations range from charming perceptions about the capabilities of the new medium - such as noting that in cinema, the dead don’t get up after the applause - to predictions about its future.  Ciné-Ville may well contain one of the first literary references to television, as well as a prediction that film will one day be disseminated by “radio wave” and a particularly far-sighted speculation that it will one day be replaced by virtual reality, in a remarkable passage that goes a step further by anticipating virtual reality’s authoritarian aspects.

Despite this clairvoyance, one is never quite sure, in this impressionistic compendium and in the face of what obviously represents some skepticism regarding the art form that would dominate the century, exactly how Ramón feels about cinema. Though he’s undoubtedly awed by it, he seems almost afraid of its potential, piqued by its turn towards melodrama both on-screen and off, and mocking of the frivolity that accompanies it. A hint of this seems to be provided in a chapter entitled “Experimental Films,” in which Ramón describes a parallel, isolated and nearly forlorn “intimate studio” where the new medium of cinema is liberally tested and pushed to its very limits, just as he appears to be doing with literature, but in the end Ramón seems to toy equally with this more “serious” cinema, as is evident from the delightful titles of some of these imaginary experimental films: The Lost Hour, The Eyes of the Planets, Battle of the Glow-worms, Cabaret of the Dead.

I’d noted in my earlier post about Gómez de la Serna that he seems to view the world through a sort of telescoping, microscoping kaleidoscope. Ciné-Ville too left me with this impression of some mad, mechanical, scientific eye at work, its gaze going everywhere and seeming to treat everything it falls upon equally, whether material or human, which may explain the sketch-like quality of the characters. Yet at the same time, this “Ramónoscope” appears capable of strong emotion, as in an uproariously sarcastic treatment of self-appointed Hollywood censors or in a charged chapter entitled “The Blacks,” which evinces the worst stereotypes of Black actors in early Hollywood while simultaneously ferociously exposing Hollywood’s racism.

Screwy and bally-hooey, Ciné-Ville provides an invaluable portrait of cinema’s early years and a snapshot, as though frozen across time, of Hollywood’s excesses then and now. What most stuck me about Ciné-Ville was its modernity; apart from a handful of minor period details, Ciné-Ville could easily be mistaken for a contemporary novel. Ramón may never have visited the place – his knowledge of Hollywood may have been gleaned exclusively from the screen itself, and at a distance of some 10,000 kilometers – but his understanding of Hollywood dynamics still at work today and the great poetic humor he brings to his observations merit Ciné-Ville a revered place among the great novels of Hollywood. Exuberant, sparkling and with a depth of presence surpassing its playful exterior, this kid stays in the picture.

[i] A useful word invented by a friend during a tipsy, late-night conversation years ago to describe the ensemble of certain independent signifiers that, together, suggest an understandable whole, as, for example, one might say of a wagon wheel, a bleached cow skull, and a length of barbed wire that they constitute some of the rangelanda of the Old West.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Post about a Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room

For those planning to enter Geoffrey Dyer’s book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, I’m here with advice. Before setting off to explore, pay attention to the posted signs, unless, like the hapless, eager reader I was, you simply bumble in - at your own peril.

I’d been curious to read Dyer, so when I learned that his new work concerned a film that had made a great impression on me, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the time seemed ripe to get acquainted. For those unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s 1974 film or the 1971 novel on which it is based, Arkady and Boris Strugasky’s Roadside Picnic[i], the premise is this: some mysterious event has occurred that has resulted in the cordoning off of a “Zone” where bizarre, unpredictable and dangerous phenomena occur and that seems to possess a capacity [the “Room” in Dyer’s title] for answering one’s innermost desire. Alas, the Zone can only be accessed with the aid of an illegal “stalker” willing to lead clients around high security and through the Zone’s capricious and dangerous traps. This conceit has a quality both inevitable and ingenious, given resonant depth - as Dyer points out - by its cleverly disguised inversion of the Soviet gulag as well as by its eerily prescient anticipation of Chernobyl.

Given my own appreciation of the film, I’d expected a strong reaction to Dyer’s. What blindsided me was his informal, free-associative, intensely personal style. Upon the structure of a scene-by-scene summary of Stalker, Dyer applies material gleaned from articles about the film and director, then liberally decorates his narrative with, well, apparently whatever seems to cross his mind: cultural references high and low, observations ranging from keen insights to remotely tangential asides, and a plethora of autobiographical details, from fond memories of his movie-going childhood to speculation about whether he and his spouse should acquire a dog.

New York poet Frank O’Hara, in a delightful essay entitled “Personism: A Manifesto,” makes some observations about bringing the personal into one’s work, noting that one of Personism’s chief aims was

to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person…this would put “the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem [would be] correspondingly gratified.

I’m don’t know whether or not - in expressing his love of Stalker – Dyer had something like this in mind, but his injection of the personal into a work that in other aspects follows the recognizable form of an empirically-based, academic treatment of its subject, certainly moves his comments about Stalker squarely between himself and the reader, running the risk – as personal revelations do (particularly when writing about innermost desires, which as Dyer notes are difficult to identify even in oneself) – of alienating readers, leaving his book the only thing in the room (my room, in which I’d been reading Zona) to feel “correspondingly gratified.” I didn’t so much dislike this strategy as find it rubbing me wrong in maddening ways that only such a personal approach could - all the more irritating for its cutting close to my own sensitivities and for my failure to watch where I was stepping.

From the beginning Dyer and I got off on the wrong foot. I winced at Dyer’s occasionally leaden epiphanies (“The Zone is cinema”), name-dropping so thick it could form stalagmites, and a use of footnotes so wanton that it could out-Wallace David Foster Wallace. More to the honest point, I found (as though on a disastrous first date) many of Dyer’s tastes simply diverging from my own. He’s never seen The Wizard of Oz and asserts proudly that he feels no need to see it. He’s bored by Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The Coen brothers are dispatched with a blunt blow from a single adjective: “witless.” Dyer laments the loss of a treasured shoulder bag, a brand I’ve always disliked for its almost fascistic aesthetic. Dyer rhapsodizes over the Burning Man festival and over dogs; as a San Francisco resident, I’m peeved by the rampant fetishism of both. Even concerning Stalker, I found – despite Dyer’s many fine observations – elements I love about the film that Dyer neglects or even fails to mention (one trivial example: the flora of the Zone in which the stalker takes a nap appears, in a blunt Tarkovskian witticism, to be a field of marijuana). How maddening for our egos, when a critic doesn’t appreciate the things we ourselves appreciate!

Roadside Picnic, for example, seems (to me) undeservedly underappreciated by Dyer, who only mentions the book in relating that Tarkovsky asked the Strugatskys to eliminate its science fiction aspects in their script for Stalker. Surely there are elements of the book worth tossing (those disinclined to like science fiction may never make it past the first unfortunate page), but Dyer leaves out the novel completely, circumventing (like Tarkovsky himself, I should add) one of its more genial ideas: that the strange phenomena of the Zone might simply be the result of litterbug extraterrestrials stopping for a roadside picnic before weaving off into the stars again, and the Zone itself not simply the consecrated space that it is in Tarkovsky’s religiously-infused vision, but perhaps a careless consequence of oblivious alien tourists who’ve had an impact like that in Ray Bradbury’s story “The Sound of Thunder,” in which a visitor to the past accidentally steps on a butterfly only to find the present irremediably altered upon his return. It’s a shame, as Roadside Picnic, despite its myriad faults, is in its own way as good as or even better than Stalker, less subtle but richer in humor, evocative of themes unexplored by the film, and delivering lightly some of what Tarkovsky delivers heavy-handedly (comparing Stalker and Roadside Picnic I can’t help but recall a curious rounded monolith in a hidden corner of Golden Gate Park that local new-agers had for years treated as a sacred altar, until the park service revealed that it was simply a discarded concrete traffic bollard). And there’s much in the novel of which Dyer might have made good use, such as a scene in which the stalker tosses a metal nut to determine the safest path to proceed through the Zone, only to see it suddenly pull hard to the side and disappear into the clay. To the stalker’s whispered question, “Did you see that?” one of his companions replies, “Only in the movies.”

But given the ample warnings that a more careful reader might have heeded before rushing into Zona, my complaints are but those of a bumbling tourist, one who, focused on seeing the Eiffel Tower, fails to appreciate the Grand Palais. After all, the title clearly promises more than merely “A Book About a Film” (and, with its string of prepositions, suggests an unreliable distancing from its real subject in the way that “my friend’s best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s uncle” does). Two epigraphs preface Zona, one from Albert Camus that almost screams an admonition - “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly” - and the other referencing the blindness that can occur from looking at something too intently. Readers might also skip ahead to the closing epigraph from novelist David Markham: “Or was it possibly nothing more than a fundamentally recognizable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred? Nothing more than a read?” This coy apologia (with its nails-on-chalkboard use of “read” as a noun) comes too late, though there’s a more contrite, less expedient one in Zona where in a sudden self-interrogation Dyer addresses whether this hyper-personalized approach is even to his own taste, much less the reader’s. Here Dyer makes clear that he’s not so much condoning what he’s doing as running with it. Zona is a running, passionate appreciation of Tarkovsky’s film, but it’s even more an unfiltered experience of falling in love with a work of art, writing about it, and playing with writing about it and with the modes of writing about a work of art (after all, one of the stalker’s clients in the film is simply “Writer,” with an ego that invites problems in the Zone). I mean, some of these elements that so grated on me are just jokes, right? When Dyer deadpans that his own innermost desire might be for a three-way with two women, might he also be implying that perhaps the truest desire of the writer is simply to bring one’s personality into art, rather than submit to the constraints of trying to hide it? To admit one’s whole flawed being in responding to and writing about art, rather than adopt a dry voice of impersonal authority? To exaggeratedly use the candor of the personal to create a form that manifests the unavoidability of the personal? And to parody, simultaneously, both the impersonality of academic responses to works of art and the often overly personal ones of increasingly powerful popular opinion made possible by the Internet (for example, in, um, blogs run by amateurs, like this one) and, by this strange dialectic, come up with some new synthetic form? Perhaps. If so, Dyer may have found his room.

There’s a suggestion in Stalker, highlighted in Zona, that the “room” in the film, though, may simply be the bar where the stalker meets his clients prior to and following their Zone visit - that in fact they’ve never left the bar. It’s an appealing interpretation, one that helped me put aside my almost exclusively personal annoyance with Zona and think of it more like an animated, intellectually stimulating, slightly tipsy conversation in a pub with an animated, intellectually stimulating, slightly tipsy stranger. I can’t say I’m unhappy to have encountered him. I’m grateful for his meandering and insightful talk about a film we both admire. And the setting is surely more convivial than a stuffy lecture hall. But I could use another drink. Dyer can pay for this round.

[i] Amateur Reader’s post on Roadside Picnic this week convinced me to dust off and try to salvage this previously abandoned post on Geoffrey Dyer’s book.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Strange Forces

My summer reading plans have been thrown into fantastic disarray by posts on the St. Orberose blog concerning Jorge Luis Borges’ lists of some of his favorite works. Some names that were completely unknown to me led me to lay aside my regularly scheduled programming, and I soon found myself swarmed by short stories of the surreal, bizarre, and fantastic by Giovanni Papini, Lord Dunsany, Ramón Gómez de la Serna (about whom I’ve already written), and the Argentine writer Leopoldo Lugones, in a translated collection entitled Strange Forces.

The twelve tales that make up Strange Forces fall into two loose camps. The first essays a wild, poeticized invocation of mythological or biblical scenes. Lugones seems to be drawn particularly by the punitive and catastrophic. One story weaves a modern tale of Sodom and Gomorrah involving destruction by fire from the sky. Another, delving into the kind of religious fanaticism one finds in Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (which surely must have been an influence), turns the screws on a lonely, eremitic monk’s faith and sends him into the charred desert ruins to pursue a legend that Lot’s wife still lives within her pillar of salt. There’s a story of martyrdom during the Crusades in which the severed hand of a saint acquires a life of its own. One of these pieces, “Origins of the Flood: Spirit Narrative” appears at first to be a free-form narrative experiment describing the primordial origins of life using a weird mélange of elements of hard science with lavish imagination:

The entire globe glistened like a monstrous silver ball. The atmosphere was of phosphorous with vestiges of chlorine and fluorine. Flames of sodium, of silica, of magnesium shot forth, the luminous progeny of metals. The atmosphere glittered like a star, outspread across a span of many millions of miles. On the continents and in their contiguous seas, organized life already flourished, if in guises inconceivable today; calcium phosphate didn’t exist, and these beings had no bones.

But the extravagances of the piece are reigned in at the end by a return to realist narrative and short story format; we realize we’ve been listening to a medium attempting to summon forth the earliest human beings. In a typical Lugones ending, a charge of charlatanism by one of the séance’s participants produces an eruption from the occult that combines horror and humor in the face of the “strange forces” before which we humans can merely scratch in the dark.

“Origins of the Flood” bridges the mythological/Biblical stories in Strange Forces with the second category of these tales, which consist of portraits of scientific experiments into which Lugones settles, like a malignant, impish spirit, in the murky niche between scientific risk-taking and madness. These Frankensteinian tales – which inject a heavy dose of science into their fictions – depict science pushed to the point of pathology. Lugones’ formidable erudition ranges into details of medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, engineering – a remarkable cornucopia of scientific interests replete with references to scientists, theories, and granular details of basic science richly seasoned with those of an invented nature.

In one story a composer seeks the meta-musical spectroscopic signature of the solar system by inventing a complex device to generate both an audio and visual “music of the spheres,” resulting in quite an epiphany when his meta-music elicits the light of the sun.  In another, a scientist perfects an “etheric wave” capable of exploding matter, a rather dangerous undertaking in a small lab. In “Psychon,” a physicist attempts the distillation of thought into liquid:

Calculate, if you can, the enormous radiation which must be produced by the daily expenditure of thought. What happens to all the useless or strange thoughts, the creations of the imagination, the ecstasies of the mystics, the dreams of hysterics, the projections of illogical minds, what becomes of all those forces whose action is not manifest for lack of immediate application? ...thought is immaterial; but its manifestations must be fluid…

A whiff of the uncorked liquid sends the narrator and physicist – and a poor Siamese cat – sailing into the air, where “for more than an hour, we committed the most extravagant escapades, to the complete stupefaction of the neighbors whom the tumult attracted.”

All of these stories are narrated by a skeptical observer and communicated with an outlandish flirtation with believability; repeatedly I paused to reread some of Lugones’ riotous paragraphs, which often test the limits of credulity. His stories almost invariably culminate in what appears to be a trademark Lugones ending; a morbid “punch-line” in which the mad side of science or the inexplicability of nature dominates, with grievous consequences imbued with a cartoonish black humor of the sort Charles Addams might employ.

There’s a bemused sort of cynicism in these stories, aimed not simply at playing with the explosive possibilities at the frontiers of faith and science, but coming across as a slightly reactionary dismissiveness and mockery of the manias and excesses of a too passionate enthusiasm. There’s even a degree of gleeful misanthropy in them, well articulated by the narrator of “The Firestorm,” who, while having a slave read him travel narratives, eats alone, because “if I disliked women, as I have told you, you can imagine how I abhorred men.” The degree to which Lugones revels in a mischievous skepticism became acutely apparent to me when I happened to follow up Strange Forces with Novalis’ ardently poetic meditation on nature, The Novices of Sais, filled with yearning, lyrical passages urging the “plucking of strings in search of chords and melodies” that will reveal nature’s secrets and implying a kind of synaesthesia involved in detecting the underlying unity of natural phenomena. Juxtaposed against Novalis’s romanticism, Lugones comes across as a devious, somewhat juvenile sprite, laughing as he tosses a wrench into the celestial clockwork. In other words, Strange Forces is the kind of book that could well become a favorite - at least for the kind of kid who enjoys blowing things up. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Margaret Jull Costa - Live & in Person

Margaret Jull Costa probably needs no introduction to anyone reading this blog. She has translated some of the greatest works of 19th and 20th century Spanish and Portuguese literature by such writers as Fernando Pessoa, José Maria Eça de Queiroz, Javier Marías, and José Saramago.

Jull Costa spoke about Saramago this past Monday night at the Book Club of California in San Francisco as part of a lecture series put on by the Center for the Art of Translation, and I was fortunate enough to attend. CAT has promised to post audio of the event on its website, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here other than to say: when the audio gets posted, go to the site, listen to the talk. It’s illuminating, moving, and you’ll have a chance to hear a magnificent reading voice (would that Jull Costa would now make audio-books of her translated works...).

Sounding out each word as though it were a privilege and pleasure to do so, Jull Costa led the rapt audience through Saramago’s life and work, illustrating it with passages from his books. Thoughout her wide-ranging discussion of Saramago’s work, Jull Costa almost never explicitly spoke about herself or her own work, instead managing to convey aspects of Saramago’s writing to which a sensitive translator would need to respond – his background and philosophy, his idiosyncratic style, the tiny arsenal of punctuation he put to use, his democratic refusal to capitalize proper names in his late work, his long sentences (about which Jull Costa offered a magnanimously delivered critique of people who whine about long sentences).

While reading a moving passage from Saramago’s Nobel acceptance speech about his illiterate grandparents, Jull Costa’s voice broke slightly. A sniffling sound made me turn my head to find both of my companions – and many others in the room – with moist eyes. It was clear that for Jull Costa translation is not merely a job or an exercise, but a means of reading sensitively, deeply, respectfully. At the end of her talk, one was left with Jose Saramago. Without having been self-effacing or trumpeting her talents, Jull Costa had simply conveyed, beautifully, Saramago’s words, and through them, why Saramago matters, and why having his work available in English matters. In response to a question, her admission that her pleasure in translating wasn’t out of a particular interest in Spanish or Portuguese literature so much as it was an interest in the English language elicited a palpable reaction. Even if this seemed an obvious point, I felt I’d had an epiphany: a great translator is, first and foremost, a great reader – and, following that, a great writer as well.

Now that she has come to the end of Saramago, with her translation of his 1980 novel, Raised from the Ground, due out in December, Jull Costa is currently working on previously untranslated works by Benito Pérez Galdós and Leopoldo Alas. I’d brought along one of her translations for her to sign, and when I put it before her, she placed both hands on the book and said it was perhaps her favorite novel: The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz. Later, I noticed that she’d signed the book in a manner that reflected the impression of modesty, humility and generosity that she had conveyed in her talk: a bit off to the side, in small script, as though acknowledging her role but also underscoring the respect in which she holds those writers whose work she has so generously made available to us. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Non-Poet King of Poetry: Ramón Gómez de la Serna

Ramón Gómez de la Serna in his studio. Photograph by Alfonso Sánchez Portela.

Either Spanish literature consists of nothing but anomalistic masterpieces or I’ve had exceptional good fortune in my selections for Spanish Literature Month.[i] I decided to stick to Spain itself (easier said than done), and have been surprised, humbled, and not a little awestruck by what I’ve found. My choices came largely by chance; I read each knowing next to nothing about its author, content, or place in the Spanish canon. Each not only turned out to have had significant impact on Spanish literature, but also moved into the ranks of my personal favorites from any literature. Following Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina (1499) and Angel Ganivet’s The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya (1897), my final selection for the month hails from the 20th century, two books by an author who came to my attention only this week. Thanks to terrific posts by Miguel of St. Orberose concerning lists compiled by Jorge Luis Borges for two book series Borges had started to edit, I took a look at some of the names on the lists I didn’t recognize.

How is it possible that I’ve made it this far through life without ever hearing of Ramón Gómez de la Serna (1888-1963)? Any of you who might also be late to this party may well ask: why should I have heard of him? Let’s see what the introduction to one of these books, a collection of eight novellas by Gómez de la Serna entitled (with remarkable restraint) Eight Novellas[ii], has to say about him:

…the literary mentor of Buñuel and Dalí.

…the Spanish writer most sought after and the one who had the strongest impact on the Latin American avant-garde writers from the nineteen twenties on…

…often considered one of the two true artistic geniuses of his time in Spain, the other being Picasso.

Okay, so that’s the opinion of the editors/translators. Do they provide assessments other than their own? They do:

As Ortega [y Gasset] describes how the new [modernist] art looks at reality…he refers to Proust and Joyce but cites only Ramón.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez declared that Ramón was the most influential writer of his formative years.

Cortázar regarded him highly, and used to follow him along the Calle Florida as an idol.

Okay then. But how about some primary sources?

“…for me he is the great Spanish writer” – Octavio Paz

“…a visionary of the universe, mental monarch and king of poetry” – Pablo Neruda.

Coming full circle, the introduction notes: “Borges wrote a book about him.”

One excuse for my not having heard of Gómez de la Serna is that little of his work has been translated into English, aside from scattered anthologized stories; an old issue of the literary journal Zero containing a handful of stories translated by Paul Bowles; and the Eight Novellas I’d found in the library. There’s a selection, published in English as Aphorisms and which I also found in the library, of the literary form Gómez de la Serna invented and called greguerías – short, humorous, imagistic, aphoristic one-liners. Finally, there’s one of de la Serna’s twenty novels translated as Movieland! (it’s supposedly about Hollywood). This, alas, was not in the library, and the price of the sole copy I could find for sale - $1,000 U.S. - put me off a bit.

The biographical details of Ramón’s life - I’ll switch to using his first name, as that’s apparently how he’s known in Spain - are perhaps even more incredible than the praise heaped upon him. It’s worth picking up these books just for the biosketches they contain; the Wikipedia entry for Ramón does not quite convey the outlandishness and electrical presence he apparently commanded. Suffice here to say that he was a catalyst – really the catalyst – for avant-garde Spanish literature and art, living a wildly inventive lifestyle and inhabiting a Madrid apartment more like a cabinet of curiosities than a residence. He bridges Spanish and Latin American literature, as he left Spain at the beginning of the civil war and lived out his life in Argentina. His prolific literary output comprises some 90 books of short stories, plays, novels, essays, literary criticism, biographies and, the contribution for which he may be best known, his beloved greguerías.

The greguerías make a good a place to start, especially since they make their way into his longer pieces with a style so singular that it bears his name: ramónismo. Aphorisms is a curious title for this collection of some 400 greguerías, since translator Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth goes to great lengths to distinguish them from aphorisms (his introduction is as succinct and invaluable an analysis of the aphoristic genre as one is likely to find anywhere). Ramón’s greguerías are exceptionally playful, experimental, lyrical condensations that illustrate how Neruda could call him a “king of poetry” even when poetry was one genre Ramón did not attempt. Poetic they are nonetheless:

Clouds should bear tags disclosing their destination so we don’t worry about them.

In the background of all mirrors there crouches a photographer.

The fragrance of flowers is an echo.

It was such nice weather that all keys took the day off.

Cloves of garlic: witches’ teeth.

Distant sails like napkins in the goblets at the banquet of the sea.

We should take more time to forget; that way we would have a longer life.

Gonzalez-Gerth notes that the form originated during a visit to Florence when, gazing upon the Arno, Ramón “suddenly perceived that each of the two banks of the river wanted to be where the other one was…an extraordinary perception [by which] all pairs and even peers among things became involved in a sort of natural and fatal competition of desire which altered the whole humdrum surface of reality.” Thus the genre was born, and Ramón came to define it mathematically: “metaphor + humor = greguería.”

This condensed metaphorical form gets woven into the absurdist stories constituting the enormously enjoyable Eight Novellas: a man’s liver appearing at his doorstop one day to move in as a constant companion; a misanthrope who spends a part of every day aspiring to become a physical feature of Naples’ Principe di Napoli galleria; a battle against influenza waged largely by amateur medical opinion; a revolution of hat haters; a mathematical approach to understanding social interactions in an apartment building; a lady who vanishes mysteriously from a hotel (the inspiration for the Alexander Woollcott novel that in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes); a man attempting to recuperate from a failed marriage by building a short-wave radio and immersing himself in its aural world; and a mad scientist intent on splitting the atom. These cursory descriptions barely hint at the humorous, often moving and glittering poeticism mingled with glimpses of the profound that one finds in these tales, which call to mind the work of Nikolai Gogol, Daniil Kharms, Dino Buzzati, and Frigyes Karinthy (Gonzalez-Gerth also mentions the poet Christian Morgenstern), but with a lighter yet more wildly energetic touch by which ideas shoot off like showers of sparks from a Roman (Ramón?) candle.

In “The Flumaster” (“Le Gran Griposo”), Ramón presents a plethora of dazzling greguerían descriptions of what it feels like to have the flu and addresses the myriad ways people deny illness by proposing all kinds of rationalizations and quack therapies. The afflicted protagonist even wonders if “he could ever find the word that would banish the flu! Success might come by using one word against another.” This remarkably pure modernist concept suggests something of the quality of ramónismo. Ramón writes as though slowly turning a complex kaleidoscope filled with words that tumble into different metaphorical combinations. But – and here he differs from surrealists out for pure effect – he also seems to point his kaleidoscope/microscope/telescope towards every emerging aspect of the modern world, sometimes with a penetrating view into the future. The introduction notes Ramón’s uncanny anticipation of such things as the Internet, various medical and psychological discoveries, the impact of car culture, and even a frighteningly prescient prediction of the atomic bomb, which, via his far-seeing 1926 story “The Master of the Atom” (“El dueño del átomo”), he claimed to have invented. The sophistication of Ramón’s surrealism shows in his story “Kill the Morse!” (“¡Hay que matar el Morse!”), where he refers not to the difference between the real and the unreal, as would be the expected approach, but to that “between the real and the real that seems unreal because it is so far away.”

Ramón’s imagistic sentences often display a kind of fever of composition and experimentation, frequently resulting in startling originality, energy, lyricism, depth, and varieties of beauty that could make the snowflake community jealous. Far from appearing labored or crafted, his prose has a wildly free, extemporaneous quality, a vital and living language. Like his revolutionary hat-hater, “free from the torture of holding onto his hat” and at liberty to stroll through the world “enjoying the challenge of a cane, twirling, riposting, parrying,” Ramón Gómez de la Serna demands the new, and delivers it with flair, joy, and a freedom of spirit rare in literature. I can’t wait to read more.

[i] Co-hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog.
[ii] Herlinda Charpentier Saitz and Robert L. Saitz, translators.