Friday, July 18, 2014

A Book Made of Rock: Manuel Mujica Láinez’s Bomarzo

…the strange sensual atmosphere that imprisoned Bomarzo…was like one of the webs in the nearby tombs, viscous and ancient, spun over a long period of time with Etruscan, Roman, and barbarian threads and the more recent woof of the golden strands of the Orsinis, a weaving of dark filaments that would suddenly sparkle, swaying between the castle and the tombs, between the Tiber and the crags, and which muffled the place in its eternal scheme.

To visit the Bosco Sacro of Duke Pier Francesco Orsini is to be initiated into a kind of cult. My initiation began years ago on the eve of a trip to Italy, when a friend forwarded me an unexpected postcard she’d received. A book artist to whom she was related, having learned of my trip, had written to ask if, for a book project, I might track down a village called Bomarzo and take photographs of its strange garden. I had never heard of Bomarzo, and my guidebook showed nothing, but once in Italy I discovered that it lay a few miles off the rail route linking Rome and Florence. I got off the train at the nearest station. Forced to resort to walking and hitchhiking to get to the town, I began to question my decision. But upon my arrival I was dumbfounded. Nestled in a dark glade beneath an imposing castle and gloomy village on the hill above, here was the place I had most hoped to find on my travels. Months earlier, bewitched by images of it in Lina Wertmüller’s film Sotto, Sotto, I’d been maddeningly vexed, in those pre-Internet days, at being unable to discover what or where it was.   

For a couple of hours I wandered in a spell cast by the Parco dei Mostri, or Park of the Monsters, as it’s known today. The eeriness of the place was evident even at its entrance, where a dozen or so peacocks strutted about uttering weirdly human-like cries. Inside, wild and unkempt paths wound crazily between the garden’s 500-year-old sculptures. Chiseled from the existing rock and covered in moss and vegetation, almost organic features of the landscape, Bomarzo’s strange figures seemed more disturbing than whimsical: an elephant, surmounted by a crenelated tower and rider, cradling or crushing a collapsed soldier in its trunk; bears standing on their hind legs, holding great stone roses; a seated mermaid, her legs spread wide; a bearded Neptune; an enormous tortoise; a precariously tilting stone tower into which one could (precariously) climb; a gap-toothed head with a globe and castle upon its crown; a woman, gigantesque, reclining voluptuously; a dragon fending off an attack by two lions; a human figure held upside down by the legs and being rent in two by a hulking giant; and most riveting, a monstrous head, an “orc,” into the gaping mouth of which one could enter and sit upon a small table, like a tongue, carved directly from the rock. Etched around the mouth, partially legible in faded red letters, were the words, “Ogni penisero vola” (“All reason takes flight”).[i] Other sculptures and decorative elements lay all about: busts, vases, great pine cones and acorns, crumbling stone block walls, parapets and stairways, even a set of serrated teeth as though the hillside itself had a mouth, an especially provoking feature given that the earth, at an imperceptibly slow pace, seemed engaged in gradually swallowing everything.

A young woman, one of but four other visitors I’d seen, reached the exit just as I did. Introducing herself as an Argentinian, she inquired, “Are you here too because of the novel?” “The novel?” I asked. “Yes, of course, Bomarzo, by Manuel Mujica Láinez.” I confessed that I did not know it. She seemed incredulous. “But why are you here? You must, you must read it. It is a very great book. He made it into an opera too, with the composer Ginastera.”

When I returned from my trip I began scouring second-hand bookshops, without success, for the English translation of Bomarzo, long out of print. In Los Angeles one evening, a bookseller asked what I’d been seeking. When I told him, the man stared hard for a moment. Then reaching into his shirt collar and fingering a chain around his neck, he withdrew a bronze medallion, leaned forward, and held it out to me. To my astonishment, it featured an engraved image of Bomarzo’s “orc.” “Ah. Bomarzo,” he sighed. “You have been there, yes? A special place. I do not have the book. I wish I did. It is a great book. Good luck finding it. And welcome to the club.”

As I would soon learn, that “club” included many notable members. Jean Cocteau had admired the garden, as had Andre Bréton, Alberto Moravia, and Mario Praz. Brassaï and Herbert List had photographed it. One of Michelangelo Antonioni’s first films was about Bomarzo, and Salvador Dalí had been so smitten that he’d attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy the place. French artist Niki de Saint-Phalle had been so inspired by the bosco sacro that she conceived her own Italian “monster grove,” the Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden) in Tuscany. The American literary critic Edmund Wilson, in one of his final essays, wrote that, “Among the uniform amenities of Italy there is one patch of ugliness and horror. The Orsini Park of Bomarzo strikes a deliberately discordant note.” Wilson went on to remark Bomarzo’s uncanny tendency to resist explanation, quoting André Pieyre de Mandiargues, one of the few writers to have made a serious study of the place: “One is baffled by so tenacious an obscurity…from the moment one undertakes to dig a little into questions that are posed by the monuments of Bomarzo, the darkness that lies at their feet is so thick that it would seem that it has been accumulated intentionally.”

Mujica’s novel, in part an effort to penetrate this “tenacious obscurity,” also appears, at least outside of Argentina, to have been afflicted by it. While I eventually located the book, I have met few people who have heard of, let alone read it (invariably with those who have, even if they’ve never visited Bomarzo, an instant, intimate complicity is established). In a 2013 piece on Argentine literature in The Guardian, commenters offered hundreds of recommendations, but Bomarzo did not appear until I suggested it myself. Among lists of great historical novels, I have never seen it mentioned. Bomarzo includes some magnificent writing about Venice, yet in the several collections of writing about that city that I’ve read, I have never seen it excerpted.[ii]

Some of this cloudiness is understandable. Readers may be discouraged not only by the problem of obtaining the out of print translation, but also by the novel’s density and 600-page length. Mujica himself, responding to a reader who found it difficult to read, admitted, “Yo no lo he vuelto a leer nunca” (“I have not read it again ever”). Furthermore, with its linear narrative structure and realist style, Bomarzo seems almost an anachronism, having more in common with the ornately magniloquent Flaubert of Salammbô than with the daring experimentation going on among Mujica’s literary contemporaries.

But in other ways this obscurity makes little sense. Mujica Láinez (or “Manucho” as he was familiarly known) - a colleague of Jorge Luis Borges, Witold Gombrowicz and other writers of their generation in Argentina - was hardly an insignificant figure. After Bomarzo appeared in 1962, it garnered Argentina’s inaugural national book award and shared, with Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch), the John F. Kennedy Prize in 1964. [iii]The novel has apparently also had an outsized influence on interpretations of the park itself, Mujica Láinez’s vision having fused with what’s actually known about Bomarzo’s history. Edmund Wilson, shortly after publication of his essay, received a letter from Mujica Láinez regretfully informing him that nearly everything Wilson had assumed to be the true story of Pier Francesco Orsini had been almost entirely invented by the author, down to the Duke’s hunched back.

Perhaps the most incongruous aspect of this obscurity, though, is that Bomarzo is a tour-de-force of writing, with a sustained, baroque intensity that seems to have been exhaled in a single long breath. Revisiting the novel 20 years after I first read it, I am even more impressed by its extraordinary richness, intricate and panoramic vision of the Italian Renaissance, and powerful, seductive psychological portrait, conveyed in a narrative style alloying realism with romantic, even gothic, elements (hidden chambers, secret tunnels, mystical objects, cryptic documents). It ranks easily among the finest historical novels I have read, comparable in quality to Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, but transcending and even refuting conventions of that genre by virtue of its unforgettable narrator, the creator of the Bosco Sacro himself, Duke Pier Francesco (a.k.a. “Vicino”) Orsini; as well as by Mujica’s having Orsini narrate his chronicle from the present day, nearly 500 years after the Duke’s birth (I challenge readers to find another work of fiction set in the Italian Renaissance that references Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita). This handy device helps emphasize one of the novel’s main thematic currents - the quest for immortality - and conveniently allows Orsini to adjust the magnification knob on his gaze into the past and trace the “merciless” ways the centuries have altered and even wiped out his traces. The merciful Mujica Láinez, however, exercises restraint in the modern material he allows the Duke to incorporate (the book’s unexpected ending helps explain why), and the novel rests almost entirely within the 16th century.


Pier Francesco Orsini’s narrative, as he insists again and again, is an attempt to set down, with scrupulous honesty and proceeding “chronologically so as to leave nothing out,” the events of his remarkable life leading up to the creation of his bosco sacro. He enters the world at Bomarzo “during a time of violence… an atmosphere in which crime was something as natural as a warlike deed or a profitable marriage,” and in an age “characterized everywhere by a search for the elements that concerned formal beauty.” A mystifying horoscope drawn the day of his birth predicts that Orsini’s life will be without end. Born 25 years after Michelangelo but sharing the same birthday, Pier Francesco is tenuously (and tenebrously) linked to the artist, for whom he serves as a foil, a dark reflection of the artistic genius of the time and a perverse example, perhaps, of the Mannerist rejection of the harmonies of the High Renaissance (though the Duke distances himself from the Mannerists’ reactionary aesthetic). From the beginning Pier Francesco is a contradictory, accursed figure, distinguished from his two tyrannizing brothers by a hunchback and limp (translator Gregory Rabassa notes similarities to Shakespeare’s Richard III) and disdained as well by his father - “a man of tremendous rages…basically a sadist,” who provides the young duke with opposing formative experiences: locking the terrified boy in a dark cell with a skeleton, then later, in an uncharacteristically tender gesture, stroking the boy’s face with his finger while recounting to him having witnessed the procession of Michelangelo’s David through the streets of Florence (one example of several “mini-essays” on art in Bomarzo). His mother having died the year after Pier Francesco’s birth, the Duke has but one reliable companion, his protective grandmother, Diana Orsini, matriarch of the family. The narrative follows Pier Francesco’s entwining motivations:

I was a man of my time and circumstances had made me worse than average. My defect – my defects – had ended by provoking a kind of blindness in me, without the bonds of religion, without the prejudices of the bourgeois, and before anything else came two preoccupations: the defense of my weak and timid personality, which had been abused by an environment of violence, and the cult of my line, a devotion to that Orsinian glory that was centered and incarnate in Bomarzo.

Constituted by a desperate desire to overcome his physical deformity and be loved; a scheming, even murderous vengefulness towards his tormentors; and a quest to leave a mark upon the world, the Duke embodies contrast. His twisted body is set off by a face that displays the distilled “perfection” of good breeding. He represents “the paradox of being and not being at the same time a privileged person.” While obliged to adhere to public codes of nobility and dignity of his time and class, he subscribes privately to Bomarzo’s myriad, opaque mysteries, its castle built upon “an immense Etruscan necropolis” in lands once occupied by this “most undecipherable people of Europe,” a world filled with objects “in possession of deep secrets that have been impressed on them.” He obtains a measure of power; seduces and is seduced, “with no separation of sexual frontiers,” by women and men of all classes and stations; enters into a tangled marriage with a Farnese, Guilia (to whom the real Duke dedicated his park, erecting a temple to her memory); and involves himself with alchemy and black arts. A character of preternatural complexity, Vicino Orsini’s jealousy, pettiness, vengefulness, despair, moral depravity, criminality, and assertions of strategically-deployed power find corresponding attributes of fragility, vulnerability, acute perceptiveness, an obsessive appreciation of art, beauty and mystery, and a resolute honesty evident in his commitment to omit nothing from his narrative, no matter how poorly it might reflect upon himself.

The scope and scale of Mujica’s novel is extraordinary. He seems to have immersed himself completely in 16th century Italy, its quotidian life, manners, superstitions, philosophical and theological debates, literary and artistic movements and triumphs, aesthetics, shifts of power, invasions and battles, internecine conflicts, the whole range of responses and challenges of a world emerging from the dark ages into the light of the Renaissance and finding, “beyond the old world that had been carefully classified with metal labels and colors strictly ordained by heraldic usage, another world…mysterious and fierce, bursting out of the jungles of America cut by enormous rivers on the banks of which temples dedicated to cruel gods arose.” The attention Mujica lavishes on the genealogy and key figures of Italy’s ruling families - Orsini, Farnese, Medici, Colonna, Gonzaga, Montefeltro, Este and others – reveals formidable scholarship. Yet these historical elements come as entirely secondary to the concentrated intensity of Mujica’s psychological portrait of the Duke, with his detached ironic tone that wavers between melancholy and cruelty and his acidic flashes of humor, all of which prevent an accretion of granular historical detail from weighing down the novel.

Art, especially painting, features prominently in Bomarzo. Many of the novel’s scenes reference specific paintings, most notably Lorenzo Lotto’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” appropriated brilliantly by Mujica as a portrait of the Duke. A reader equipped with a thorough knowledge of Italian Renaissance painting might even be able to assemble an exhibition that would form a coherent visual accompaniment to the book. Bomarzo’s panoramic scenes in Venice, for example, suggest Canaletto, while other works, portraits of various Orsini and Farnese, are, like Lotto’s portrait, deftly put to use to fit Mujica’s fictional needs.

Lozenzo Lotto, "Portrait of a Young Man," Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

A great love of literature is also evident in the Pier Francesco’s frequent invocation of works and authors, sometimes as a means of extending himself: “what I could not do, what I could never do, others were doing for me, leaping out of the folios in full armor.” Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando furioso” serves as something of a guiding light for both the Duke and Mujica, as Bomarzo often echoes the “new aesthetic world” of Ariosto’s poem, its feverish amalgam of reality and fantasy.[iv] The widely known – Dante, Petrarch, Lucretius, Catullus, Francisco Colonna’s hallucinatory mélange of architecture and eroticism in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili - and lesser known, such as Girolamo Fracastoro’s three volume epic poem on syphilis – appear throughout Bomarzo. Occasionally a more modern work helps Pier Francesco illuminate his hidden recesses, especially French romantic poet Gerard de Nerval’s poem “El Desdichado,” from which the Duke takes a line to tag himself repeatedly: “Je suis le Ténébreux – le Veuf – l’inconsolė, le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie” (“I am the shadowy one – the widower – the unconsoled, the Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower”).

It’s difficult to convey how seamlessly and meticulously Mujica works figures of the Renaissance into his novel, a feat that would seem impossible given the number of historically significant persons with whom Vicino Orsini manages to cross paths. Some the Duke encounters himself – Benvenuto Cellini, Paracelsus, Catherine de Medici, Clement V, Lorenzo Lotto, Pietro Aretino, Michelangelo – while the wide network of relations among the great families pull others into the tale. Only rarely does this involvement seem to stretch credulity, as when Pier Francesco, a participant in the battle of Lepanto, is saved from a brawl by a young Spanish soldier who, upon learning of the Duke’s passion for literature, gives him a volume of Garcilaso de la Vega. The name of the young soldier? Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. But the careful insertion of the fictional into the factual, and vice versa, is one of the novel’s strengths, as though Mujica had managed to find a chink in the historical record and worked into it an entire, plausible yet fictional history, one that, in the “honest account” of the complicated figure of Pier Francesco Orsini, amplifies and deepens one’s understanding of the Renaissance at the same time that it rejects the goal of merely reproducing the period.

For as an example of historical fiction, Bomarzo may be as twisted as its fictionalized narrator. The novel’s events draw deeply on empirical, historical facts but employ the tools of fiction to fill in the space around those contours, a kind of negative space exercise with history.[v] It’s as though Mujica has taken what is known about the Italian Renaissance and patinated it with some glistening, viscous black liquid, creating a work as “discordant” in relation to the high points of the Renaissance as the park of the monsters is to the age’s “uniform amenities.” Despite the novel’s participation in some of the period’s greatest events, many rendered sumptuously, indelibly – the coronation of Charles V, the battle of Lepanto, the age’s scientific and philosophical revolutions, the artistic ascensions of Cellini and Michelangelo – Bomarzo offers an unsettling gaze into the darkness of this glorious age. Pier Francesco’s sharp intelligence and appreciation of art and beauty, his quest for love and recognition, merges constantly with elements of the bizarre, grotesque and sordid, of vice, crime and violence, his garden becoming a distillation into rock, subtly coded to memorialize this life, a landscape to be read as one wandered among its aberrant features.  

Manuel Mujica Láinez visited the bosco sacro at Bomarzo twice. The projects and manias of members of the “club” indicate that few return from Bomarzo unaffected, but Mujica’s novel may represent an extraordinarily obsessive personal response. Refusing or unable to detach himself from Bomarzo’s “tenacious obscurity,” Mujica seems rather to have inhaled its Etruscan vapors and identified completely with his creation, Pier Francesco Orsini. If Bomarzo initially appears to be a throwback, with its device of apparently endless life and its curious investment, for a South American writer, in a tale set across the sea five centuries in the past (Mujica has been characterized as belonging, with Borges, to an “escapist” school of Argentine fiction), the novel ultimately and subtly suggests something more profound going on, an exploration of the mysteries of artistic production that at the end culminates in a creation as enigmatic, engrossing, unsettling and defiant as Pier Francesco’s own, a singular fusion of an artist with his work, and an affirmation of literature’s capacity to be simultaneously a fiction of which we are aware and a constructed reality that seduces and immerses. Bomarzo remains - even on a second reading – an unforgettable reading experience, a quiet detonation seeded with derangement, irrationality and uneasy wonder. It’s unsurprising that the Argentine dictatorship banned the opera, ostensibly for its overt sexual elements, but plausibly because this content subverts a sense of order. This is hardly a novel for dictators. “Monsters never die,” proclaims Pier Francesco’s dictatorial father. The authors of this grand narrative, Mujica Láinez and his shadowy, heterodox, many-faceted narrator, “blood brothers of the fabulous beasts who had reigned in the world when fragile man had hidden from the gigantic and implacable monsters, when only divinities had dared confront them,” might know better. 

Bomarzo, by Manuel Mujica Láinez (1962), translation by Gregory Rabassa (1969, Simon and Schuster). Reviewed in conjunction with Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard and StuThe Cry from Bomarzo, by Paula Hocks (2001, Running Women Press), the book project for which I took photographs and on which the artist worked for more than 10 years, is currently held by the University of Iowa Library Special Collections. Should any reader get a chance to see this one-of-a-kind book, I would be most grateful for a report, as I only saw it only once, in the early stages of its assembly.

[i] Originally: “Lasciate ogni pensiero voi ch’entrate” (“Abandon all reason, you who enter here”), a perplexing alteration of the warning above the entrance of Dante’s inferno, the word “hope” here replaced by “reason.”
[ii] Bomarzo is apparently better known in South America. Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, in an oddly perfunctory preface to a South American edition (reproduced in a collection of Bolaño’s non-fiction, Between Parentheses), singles out Bomarzo from Mujica Láinez’s work as special, noting that while it had little to teach a “young writer,” his generation read it later, with few emerging “unscathed.” But Bolaño fishes to say much else about the book, referencing almost nothing within the novel itself. It’s difficult not to think of a figure from Bolaño’s own Nazi Literature in the Americas who makes “bold pronouncements” about Mujica Láinez but has never read him. The absence of any mention of the book’s setting also suggests that Bolaño never visited the bosco sacro.
[iii] Gregory Rabassa translated both books. According to Roberto Bolaño, Mujica Láinez jokingly suggested that the novels could be bound together in a single volume called Raymarzo or Boyuela.
[iv] The importance of Ariosto to the real Duke reveals itself in several of the garden’s sculptures. The giant tearing another figure in two, identified in Antonioni’s film as Hercules and described in several books about Bomarzo as an indecipherable mystery, is, to anyone who has read “Orlando furioso,” an obvious depiction of Orlando’s wanton killing of a woodcutter.
[v] Though only two references to South America appear in the book, one an appearance by the founder of Buenos Aires and the other featuring Mujica himself, the book might well serve as an example of the “Argentine Literature of Doom.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Ambit of Books: Rodrigo Rey Rosa's Severina

Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novella, Severina, is almost ready-made to please admirers of contemporary literary fiction. For one thing, its principal characters are a book thief and a bookseller, and a love of books - or perhaps more accurately, a “bookish impulse” that carries the narrator “beyond the bounds of reason” - facilitates and mediates a love affair between these two strangers. For another, it’s brimming with references to literature, including several lists of books (stolen, shared, given away, accumulated) to send the literarily curious on a hunt for new potential treasures (Émile Laoust’s volume of Berber folktales, anyone?) as well as clues to possible resonances of these works within Rey Rosa’s own. Severina also references more easily traceable influences on Rey Rosa’s work, including his time in Morocco and tutelage under Paul Bowles, since works by both Bowles and his wife Jane show up on the lists, and Moroccan Arabic as well as an actual Moroccan also make appearances. Perhaps most conspicuous, though, is the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, who, off stage, even helps along the plot (or at least his personal library does – is your interest piqued now?)

The narrator, unnamed co-owner of a bookshop started by “eccentrics” “tired of paying through the nose for books chosen by and for others,” strikes a tone perhaps all too recognizable to those obsessed by literature:

Those were eventful days, or rather I heard that they’d been eventful (there was a rash of lynchings in the inland villages and a coup in a neighboring country, cocaine became the world’s number one illicit substance, stagnant water was discovered on Mars, and Pluto definitively lost its status as a planet), my life having shrunk once more to the ambit of books; I had become another specimen of that sad type, the bookseller with literary aspirations.

Into this “sad” life, a bit of color appears in the form of a book thief with exquisite taste in literature, an attractive woman (I should have said “colors” earlier in this sentence, since she always sports a different one) who quietly slips into the bookstore, filches books, and mysteriously manages to walk out without setting off the alarm, returning several times. The narrator’s curiosity about her – and her book choices, which “might help solve the mystery of a life that seemed bizarre and fantastic” – trumps any indignation he feels about her transgressions. He allows her petty larcenies to continue long enough for him to let her know that he knows what she’s doing, and for him to fall in love with her.

But from the beginning Ana Severina Bruguera (sharp readers may recognize that last name as the same of one of Borges’ publishers) is an enigma difficult to pin down and as chameleon-like as the colors she wears. An unidentifiable accent marks her as perhaps Italian, Honduran, Columbian or from elsewhere. She lives or doesn’t live with an older man who may be her father, husband, lover or grandfather (aptly named Señor Blanco, as though he’s a blank page). She has several false passports on which she appears to travel about, lifting books wherever she goes. Despite the novel’s Guatemalan setting, it possesses a tangible internationalist quality, one made especially appealing here by a suggestion that Severina and her companion seem almost fictions themselves, emissaries from a world of books rather than from a specific, identifiable country. The narrator’s sketchy knowledge about her arrives from multiple sources; hearsay and rumor, the clerk of the pension where Severina stays, Severina’s own cryptic and perhaps mendacious revelations, and even the narrator’s own fantasies, dreams and doubts.  Very little is clear in Rey Rosa’s narrative, other than his extraordinarily crisp and lucid writing.

Severina could simply be an indulgent exercise in literary self-reflexivity were it not for elements that enrich and buoy it above that. Among them is the subtlety with which Rey Rosa incorporates his literary themes. For example, there’s a good deal in Severina concerning the mechanisms of exchange and consumption of literature, an implicit questioning of the role of writers and books in forging one’s identity, and even a hidden noir novel here, with a murder, clandestine disposal of a body, closed borders, and secret deals to buy silence and freedom. Also, the novel engenders a sense of ambiguity and open-endedness, especially regarding the slipperiness of identity, that is both disturbing and liberating, venturing well beyond its literary games. After all, this is also the story of a love affair and of the sins of commission and omission that permit that love to happen, as underscored by the book’s anchoring epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “What power has love but forgiveness?”

It’s unsurprising that Roberto Bolaño thought of Rey Rosa as “the best of [their] generation.” Both writers display an explicit fixation on books and writers to the extent that they become material for their own works, and both incorporate assertions about literature and books that raise questions but remain deliberately inconclusive, the centerpiece at Rey Rosa’s book banquet being a monologue by Señor Blanco (reminiscent of the “bookish pharmacists” passage in Bolaño’s 2666) concerning “the tides and currents of books,” their “migrations, invasions, outbreaks, extinctions.” One might be forgiven for loving this.  

I’m pleased that Severina, after The African Shore, was the second of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novels I read this year. I can’t say I was surprised by Severina’s more circumscribed world of writers and books, a focus with similarities to Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and almost sure to please fans of that book. But the wider divergence from this focus that is on display in The African Shore – and its meticulous, crystalline-clear writing, captivating storytelling,  complexity of themes, unusual atmosphere combining a calm spaciousness with restive, colliding social tensions, and its unforgettable, almost instantly classic contribution to the genre of works in which an animal serves as a nexus for human interactions – reveal manifold different capacities of this writer.  I greatly look forward to discovering his other works.

I read Severina (2011, English translation by Chris Andrews 2014, Yale University Press) for Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard and Stu. The African Shore, 1999, is translated by Jeffrey Gray and also published by Yale University Press (2013). 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Boris Vian: L’écume des jours

Something akin to those science experiments that employ vast amounts of energy to achieve a momentary glimpse of a transitory but paradigm-shifting state, Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’écume des jours [i] - a delirious, nutty, affecting and tragic love story (ranked #10 on Le Monde’s 1999 list of the best 100 books of the 20th century) - radiates life and captures, for a brilliantly glowing instant, the effervescent transports of youth, love and friendship.

It’s disappointing that Vian seems to be best known, at least in the United States, for I Spit on Your Graves (J’irai cracher sur vos tombes), his raging novel of racial and sexual violence in the American South, as L’écume des jours, while hardly free of the darkness that shadows that later attempt at noir, reveals Vian working a far richer, more resplendent and dazzling vein. As though anticipating the Beat Generation (and taking most of its better aspects, leaving the larder spare), Vian’s novel mixes his beloved jazz music with poetic conceits and inventive language into a work in which music and movement seem generated by every gesture, to punctuate each event, creating an animated, spirited atmosphere of transient vivacity and bright promise. In a prefatory note to the book, Vian captures the vital concentration of this elixir, writing, “There are only two things: love, in all its aspects, with pretty girls, and the music of New Orleans or of Duke Ellington. The rest should disappear, because the rest is ugly, and these few pages of demonstration that follow take all of their force from the fact that the story is true, just as I have imagined it from one end to the other.”

The reader knows right away that he or she is in for an imaginative “true story.” L’écume des jours verges on fable, creating a world in which the emotions of its characters find correspondence in exterior manifestations, often of an absurdist, even hilarious nature. The novel opens with the well-off, 21-year-old Colin emerging exhilarated from his bath and walking down the hallway to the kitchen, where mustachioed mice - one serves as a mute but expressive witness throughout the novel - dance delightedly in the rays of sun reflecting off the shiny faucets of the sink. Colin’s private chef, Nicholas, has ingeniously trapped an eel that has been sticking its head out of the lavatory basin, and is preparing an extragant recipe supplied to us in full (more recipes follow, all at least as over-the-top as any in James Hamilton Patterson’s comical Cooking with Fernet Branca, but plausible, since…well, try looking into an antiquarian French cookbook sometime). When Colin’s closest friend Chick arrives, the jazz-obsessed Colin demonstrates for him his pianocktail, a piano that mixes cocktails in accordance with particular melodies played on the keyboard, just one of many conceits and inventions in L’écume des jours wild enough to rival those of Raymond Roussel.[ii] 

Colin, aching to fall in love with someone, like Chick has with Nicolas’ niece Alise, encounters at the ice skating rink one day the 18-year-old Chloe, from whom he flees after committing a faux pas. Vian captures beautifully the abject fear mingled with all-encompassing hope that marks the earliest moments of love between young people. What follows is a madcap, whirling, deeply poignant love story in which the brightest and most ethereal moments of young love run up against the trials and cruelties of a world seemingly determined to snuff them out.

Though fantastical for a “true” story, L’écume des jours cleaves closely to realities thinly veiled and often tremendously funny, as in a contrepèterie transformation of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (friends and champions of Vian) into Jean-Sol Partre, the great philosopher of the moment, and his colleague the Duchesse de Bovouard. Chick, obsessed with purchasing all of Partre’s books in the finest editions (including one bound in nothingness), becomes nearly giddy when a bookseller offers him a pair of the philosopher’s worn pants. His girlfriend Alise shares his fanaticism, at least for a time. Partre himself, nearing completion of his magnum opus, a 20-volume encyclopedia of nausea, arrives at a conference riding upon the back of an elephant, accompanied by sharpshooters; following the philosopher’s talk to fans no less enthusiastic than those of the Beatles at Shea Stadium, sample vials of varieties preserved vomit are offered for sale.

Vian’s rich language provides one of the greatest pleasures of L’écume des jours. For example, in the original French, the above vials are described as “enchantillons de vomi empaillé,” the last word nearly untranslatable in context, given its connotations of taxidermy. Vian frequently employs neologisms, surprising juxtapositions of adjectives, and unusual turns of phrase, many of which slip as effortlessly as a grace note into the linguistic current, as in his invention (replete with description) of a dance he terms the “biglemoi.”

Much of the fanciful content of L’écume des jours derives from its many cartoonish exaggerations, like those one imagines might have blossomed had Salvador Dalí continued his brief collaboration with Walt Disney. In one scene, Colin draws grooves on the top of a cake, then spins the cake on his index finger while, with the sharp point of a holly leaf serving as a stylus, elicits Duke Ellington’s “Chloe.” In another scene, as a piece by Ellington is played on the phonograph, a rectangular room stretches to become round, resuming its original shape when the music stops. When Chloe undergoes an operation to remove a water lily growing in her lung, the surgical scar forms a comically perfect circle. Nicolas’ culinary concoctions reach an alarming state of absurdity when he prepares a hangover cure consisting of “white wine, a spoonful of vinegar, five egg yolks, two oysters, and a hundred grams of ground beef with crème fraîche and a pinch of hyposulfite of soda.”[iii]

Often, though, such elaborations represent material correspondences of the sharp emotions of youth. Some of these take on a violent quality of the sort present in I Spit on Your Graves, a just-under-the-surface fury at life’s injustices, a fierce protest against all that stands in the way of love, vitality and hope. When a skating rink attendant moves with lethargic indifference after Colin learns that Chloe is in the hospital, Colin, with cartoon violence, dispatches him by throwing an ice skate and decapitating him. Alise’s eventual dismay at Chick’s having become a slave to collecting all things Partre results in a furiously disproportionate explosion of violence that contains echoes of the Nazis’ destructive purges.

If not an explicit response to the horrors of the just-concluded war, L’écume des jours, written as Vian traveled about the United States in 1946, nonetheless carries within it a scream of indignation against a world that could allow the wanton destruction of so many young people, so much beauty. Coming from the pen of a writer who would go on to compose one of the most forceful and defiant refusals to participate in the killing of his fellow human beings – the acidly caustic song “Le Deserteur” - it’s small wonder that this marvel-filled and moving work of imagination and exuberance could simultaneously contain such a grimly melancholic vision bordering on fatalism, an acknowledgement that the world’s ugliness may prove too much even for the best of youth. Having witnessed the terrible things of which the world was capable, even Mickey Mouse might willingly have placed his head in the open maw of an ever-obliging cat.

[i] The difficulties of translation are evident in the history of attempts to translate the title of Vian’s novel. “L’écume” translates literally as “froth,” “foam,” or “sea spray” (Wikipedia’s entry on Vian goes for the more vulgar “scum”). At least three English translations of L’écume des jours have been published and three film versions have come out, all of which demonstrate this translation problem. The film titles include Spray of the Days and two titles that leapfrog the issue, Chloe and, sharing the same title as the second English edition to be published, the recent Mood Indigo. The first English edition appeared in 1967, entitled Froth on the Daydream. The latest, 2003’s Foam of the Daze, leans in the direction of fetishizing the kookier elements of the book at the expense of its genuine innocence and tenderness, and to me misses the poignancy of the original French. This may largely be a matter of taste; I am not a translator, but an option that appeals to me is The Evanescence of Days.

[ii] Literature’s marvelous ability to imagine what others may go on to realize is born out , as an Internet search on the word reveals, by the existence of several working pianocktails created by Vian’s fans.

[iii] Perhaps best known today as the principal ingredient in those chemical “instant heat” hand warmers and thermal pads.