Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Poems from Spain's Golden Age

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Edith Grossman’s The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, a sampling from poets of Spain’s glorious literary period from the late 15th through mid 17th centuries. The book contains several poems each by eight of the Golden Age’s greatest poets: Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso de la Vega, San Juan de la Cruz, Fray Luis de León, Lope de Vega, Luis de Gongóra, Francisco de Quevedo, and, as her books were first published in Spain, Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Even if the limited number of selections (Lope de Vega, author of some 3,000 sonnets and 2,000 plays, gets three short poems) can only provide a quick glimpse of the work of these poets, Grossman gives a terrific introduction to this period, providing each poet with a brief biography accompanied by an engraved portrait, and the Spanish originals on facing pages (the hardcover book itself, printed on deckle-edged rag paper, is lovely; my spouse, reading her own book one night, kept stealing glances at mine and finally asked, “What is that beautiful book you’re reading?”). The biographies touch on formalistic and stylistic elements of the poems, historical innovations such as Garcilaso’s tremendous impact in introducing Italian, Petrarchan forms to Spanish poetry, and memorable biographical details. One concerns Gongóra’s nickname, “The Prince of Darkness,” due to a culturanista or euphuistic style mocked by Lope de Vega and Quevedo. Another is Fray de León’s Jewish converso background and insistence on honoring the Hebrew origins of biblical stories. Returning to teaching after four years in prison, he is said to have begun his first class, “As I was saying the other day…” Sor Juana, towards the end of her life, gave away her entire library of 4,000 volumes, the largest in Mexico at the time, and died serving the poor.

A striking number of the poems in The Golden Age take as their subject the brevity and evanescence of life. Of these, Quevedo is the clear master of such deeply melancholy expressions of our short tenure on earth and of approaching death, pining in one poem, “I am a weary was, will be, and is” and in another, “Sonnet XVIII,” offering a palpably acute sense of death’s parentheses around life:

The too-brief year of this our mortal life
sweeps everything away, mocking the courage
of valiant steel and marble gleaming cold
that dare to challenge time with their hard strength.
Before my foot knows how to walk it moves
along the path to death, where I do send
my obscure life, a poor and  turbulent river
swallowed by great waves in a pitch-dark sea.
Each brief moment a long and thrusting step
I take against my will, for on this journey
e’en when still, or sleeping, I spur ahead.
A brief lament, a final, bitter sigh
is death, the fate that is our legacy:
if law, not penalty, why do I grieve?

Courtly apostrophes to women idolized from a distance also figure frequently in the selection, filled with snowy bosoms “so pure and white,” “inviting scarlet lips,” “Aurora upon your cheek/Phoebus in your eyes.” Lope de Vega, in his “Folk Song VII,” attempts to surmount such clichés: “”Your beautiful eyes, Lucinda/are not really stars in the sky” while admitting that “their brightness, their sweet light/not having something divine -/that cannot be.” As poet Billy Collins notes in his introduction to the book, such lofty sentiments are offset, somewhat ironically, by the patently carnal religious poems of San Juan de la Cruz. A disciple of St. Teresa of Avila, San Juan mimicked the transparently sexual ecstasy of his muse’s religious transports in expressions that would have been scandalous if addressed to a flesh and blood woman, but remained safe when couched in a higher, more spiritual context:

O flame of living love
that wounds with such tenderness
the deep, the deepest center of my soul,
now that you have come to me
conclude, if you so wish,
and rend the fabric of this sweet encounter.
 - (from"Song III: Flame of Living Love")

One of the most charming poems in the book is notable for its unusual self-reflexivity. In “Instant Sonnet,” Lope de Vega spends a sonnet’s entire 14 lines describing the writing of the poem itself.

Violante orders me to write a sonnet,
I’ve never been so pressed in my life before.
Fourteen verses, they say, are in a sonnet;
I haven’t even tried and I have four…

Perhaps my favorite of all the works in the book is a lengthier poem by Garcilaso de la Vega, “Eclogue 1,” modeled on the bucolic eclogues of Virgil. In the first dedicatory stanzas, Garcilaso notes that before singing the praises of his patron he’ll entertain him with a story of two shepherds, Salicio and Nemeroso, both grieving the loss of their lady loves (Salicio’s has run off with another man; Nemeroso’s has died). The poem is like an exquisitely painted miniature. Garcilaso first presents the two shepherds as though zooming into the pastoral landscape with a camera to capture the beginning of their lamentations - “their sheep paid heed to their sweet songs, forgetting/to graze, listening to their plaints of love” - following this with several pages of deeply felt melancholy and grief, the shepherds alternating their woeful tales. At the poem’s end, Garcilaso zooms back out to reveal again the tranquil scene of the two shepherds at the end of their work day:

Never would the shepherds have put an end
to their laments, or their sweet, mournful songs,
heard only by mountains untamed and desolate,
have ceased, if, looking at crimson-hued clouds
embroidered in gold by the setting sun,
they had not seen the close of day upon them.
The shadows came descending,
moving apace, hastening down the overgrown slope
of the loftiest mountain, and the two,
as if waking from a dream, and in
the scant light of the sun
in flight, and then gone, brought together their sheep,
and slowly, step by step, the shepherds left.

Garcilaso manages to invest the surface of a typical pastoral scene – two shepherds tending their flocks – with intense interiority, a kind of lesson in the depth of human emotion lurking beneath placid surfaces. In the context of placing his shepherd’s tale as a sort of preface to the delayed praise of the patron for whom he writes the poem, perhaps (I am speculating here) Garcilaso also creates a subtle means of orienting his patron to interior reflection and to a sympathetic understanding of suffering.

Grossman’s selections do exactly what such selections should do: arouse the reader’s interest in reading more. The strength of her selection, at least for me, is that my interest has been aroused not just for a few of these poets, but for all of them. And if my reading of additional selections from Garcilaso de la Vega is any indication, many treasures await.

Sincere thanks to Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos for suggesting The Golden Age.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jöel Dicker: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert

LaJoie: “Well, who do you suspect?”
Clouseau: “I suspect everyone.”
                  - A Shot in the Dark (Dir. Blake Edwards)

I am almost certainly the wrong person to review Swiss writer Jöel Dicker’s 667-pound page, award-winning polar, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (just published in English as The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair). With exceptions, I’m not a fan of the genre. But while in France last year I’d been intrigued by reading about the book’s attempt to recreate an American thriller and explore American society. I do like, with exceptions, those foreign novels that take on the U.S. as a subject, and the Edward Hopper painting on the book’s cover was further enticement. Anyway, within pages of starting Dicker’s galloping story, I’d resigned myself to finishing it. There must be a name for this syndrome: the compulsion to find out what happens despite a simultaneous impatience to be done with the thing.

A murder committed, a killer to be found - standard polar stuff - but a deliberate meta-fictional element buoys Dicker’s novel, as he makes it as much about the writing (and marketing) of a thriller as it is one itself.

The year is 2007. Marcus Goldman, a New York writer whose first novel has propelled him to stardom, finds himself with writer’s block. Desperate, he contacts his former mentor, Harry Quebert, author of an award-winning 1975 novel, The Origins of Evil, and visits him in Aurora, the seaside New Hampshire town where Quebert has lived quietly since producing his blockbuster. Yet despite Quebert’s encouragements Goldman returns to New York frustrated.

Months later Goldman’s agent calls and tells him to turn on the TV: Harry Quebert has been arrested for the murder of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan, whose disappearance from Aurora, that summer of ‘75 when the 34-year-old Quebert had moved there and written his novel, had attracted national attention. Nola’s remains, along with a bag holding the original manuscript of The Origins of Evil, have just been found buried on Quebert’s property, and Quebert, while denying culpability, admits to having had a relationship with the adolescent, his “muse.” One is almost obliged here to index a thought for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, especially since the writer’s liaisons with Nola occurred in a roadside motel of exactly the sort Humbert Humbert would have chosen.  

For 600 pages, Dicker takes us through an increasingly complicated investigation. Goldman installs himself in Quebert’s house while his friend awaits trial. Prompted by his desire to exonerate Quebert as well as by a publisher salivating over a book to capitalize on the scandal, Goldman takes the murder on as his topic and finds himself at last writing effortlessly while joining forces with an Aurora police officer to probe the case’s multiplying mysteries.

And do these mysteries ever multiply. Dicker’s convoluted plot puts increasing distance between the most obvious solution - that Quebert killed and buried Nola - and alternatives so exponentially proliferating that one can’t help but laugh. Nearly everyone in La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert is suspect; I half expected Dicker to turn himself in at the end.

As a novel about writing, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert tosses off some amusing references to the writing life. Quebert, a manly-man writer in the vein of Norman Mailer, provides, in what serve as interchapters, writing “lessons” to Goldman that consist largely of kitsch boxing metaphors (“Raise your fists, take your stance, prepare yourself to fight…a book is a battle”). Quebert’s lawyer, in a humorous referential note, is named Roth. There's a reference to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. If I’m not mistaken, there’s also a nod to Dutch writer Harry Mulisch and his famous writing table in Amsterdam’s Café Americain. In any case, the American café that serves as Aurora’s social hub strongly resembles the New Hampshire cafeteria that figures in George Simenon’s Feux Rouges, and Dicker’s most evident model is Simenon himself, who, during his years in New England, traveled frequently along U.S. Route 1, to which Dicker tethers the action of La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert.

Dicker’s book comes across as both homage to and parody of mystery novels set in America. He seems mostly intent on reproducing such an American-style thriller, along the way providing a recognizable view of American alienation, paranoia, and especially the dynamic that turns tragedy into spectacle and violence into profit, while also aiming at that key fulcrum of American culture, the entwined tension between Puritanism and prurience. He lances numerous other American subjects, including, perhaps most successfully, the media apparatus ready to sensationalize the most heinous crime as long as doing so can produce a return. His portrait of the publishing industry is deeply cynical: the deadline that must be met if the Quebert affair isn’t to be swept off the news by the 2008 Presidential election; the teams of lawyers to handle potential libel issues; marketers rushing to create a buzz for the book; film rights negotiators securing a deal; professional ghost-writers standing by to “spice up the sauce” should Goldman fail to invent enough salacious detail.

Like fallen autumn leaves, the novels within Dicker’s novel accrete and overlap one another. Quebert’s published novel is haunted by the original manuscript version, while Goldman’s book-in-progress about the scandal, entitled L’Affaire Harry Quebert, nests within Dicker’s own book, which continues this playful game through to the acknowledgements page, where thanks are given to some characters as though they existed outside Dicker’s fiction.  Dicker also constructs his narrative of multiple texts, including excerpts from Goldman's manuscript and Quebert's novel, journal entries, letters, police reports, transcripts of recordings, newspaper clippings, even advertisements. 

As enriching and clever as these referential, meta-fictional elements are, none of this goes terribly deep, and I found myself wishing this massive entertainment had been of Simenonean brevity. Like the formula mystery novels that Dicker appears to parody - if my occasional sampling of them gives any indication - La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert relies heavily upon plot, and, even if this is a particularly clever example, it thinly bridges key plot points with prose that can at times be arid, plodding and redundant. What’s more, the passages Dicker invents for Goldman’s In Cold Blood-style work, L’Affaire Harry Quebert, and for Quebert’s own The Origins of Evil, come across as mundane – perhaps (one might hope) as a satire of American literary tastes.

At one point, Harry Quebert bluntly tells Marcus Goldman:

You’re a writer, let’s say…a modern writer. You please readers because you’re young and dynamic…and trendy. You’re a trendy writer. And that’s that. No one expects that you’re going to obtain a Pulitzer Prize; they like your books because they’re trendy, because they’re diverting, and that’s okay.

I couldn’t help but feel that Dicker’s book was exactly this: trendy and diverting. And that’s okay. For all of Dicker’s cynicism about the book industry and the values of the reading public, ready to snap up anything titillating, he has managed to produce a book that, while exposing the dynamics that produce such works, is also one itself. It’s a nifty trick - after all, he got me to buy and read his novel - and, as he must have hoped, he’s taken this bit of performance art all the way to the bank: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert has become an international success. While I’m tempted to mumble, “Quelle déception!” as the French do when disappointed, I have to admit a grudging admiration for the cleverness with which I've been so thoroughly suckered. Can a movie adaptation be far behind?