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.